Pidgeon Pagonis, a 30-year-old Chicago native, is changing how the world sees intersex people and how intersex people see themselves.
The artist and activist was born with androgen insensitivity syndrome, one of a variety of rare conditions described by the umbrella term "intersex." Intersex describes a person born with anatomy that is neither distinctively male nor female, and about one in 2,000 people are part of this group, according to the advocacy organization InterAct.
“People don’t read me as either male or female,” said Pagonis, who prefers the non-binary pronouns they and them. Pagonis identifies as queer, though not all intersex people do.
Pagonis was born with XY chromosomes, internal testes, an enlarged clitoris and a partially formed vagina. Doctors decided Pagonis would be best off raised as a girl. They removed the testes, fearing they may become cancerous.
Next, surgeons performed a clitoridectomy and a vaginoplasty — cosmetic surgeries that made Pagonis’s genitals look more distinctively female — before they were 12 years old. Pagonis, however, still felt different.
“I was told I wouldn’t have a period or be able to have children,” they said. “It didn’t register that I was intersex or even what that was.”
Doctors told Pagonis the cosmetic surgeries were necessary so they could one day have sexual relationships with men, something the 11-year-old had trouble understanding. The surgeries left Pagonis desensitized and psychologically scarred with little interest in sex.
“I was angry and hurt and felt robbed of an opportunity to live a genuine life without all the anger and sadness,” added Pagonis, who learned about the full extent of the surgeries in college. “I didn’t have a complete body. I was ashamed.”
Now Pagonis is transforming shame into beauty. After seeing campaigns like “Transgender is Beautiful,” Pagonis wanted to send a similar message to people in the intersex community who were also struggling.
“I took these campaigns I had seen elsewhere and my love for watercolors and merged them together,” said Pagonis. The result is a series of watercolors called “Intersex is Beautiful.”
Pagonis is also spreading the message through social media. On October 26, 2015 — Intersex Awareness Day — they created the hashtag #intersexstories with the help of a friend and urged intersex people to tell their stories on Twitter. The effort received a huge following and allowed people to share their stories openly — many for the first time.
“It was just a really affirming moment for everybody,” Pagonis added.
It was also a moment that caught attention from the White House, where Pagonis was recognized as an LGBT Champion of Change in November.
Pagonis is now working to convince the medical industry to stop performing “gender corrective” surgeries on intersex children, which the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights considers a human rights violation. Pagonis speaks at colleges and medical schools worldwide and has been screening their documentary "The Son I Never Had." The first-person narrative takes viewers on a journey with Pagonis as they struggle with - and ultimately embrace - their identity as an intersex person.
Despite touching thousands through advocacy work, Pagonis still struggles personally.
“[Intersex] people thank me for allowing them to come out and sometimes also parents who decide not to get surgery done on their child because they heard me talk ... I don’t know what to do with it, because I’m still pretty numb from the surgery myself," Pagonis explained.
Pagonis will only be fully satisfied if and when the medical industry stops performing surgeries on children who are intersex. In the meantime, the responses Pagonis receives from the intersex community — including many who are just beginning to come out and tell their stories — are rewarding.
“It puts a smile on my face and gives me fuel to keep doing this work,” Pagonis concluded.