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Intersex activist Pidgeon Pagonis presents in Beloit

All humans are sex neutral until their fourth month in the womb, Pidgeon Pagonis told their audience on Thurs, Nov. 9. Only after that do biological sex characteristics begin to develop, and fetuses begin to physically appear male or female – but even that isn’t the whole truth, as demonstrated by nearly two percent of the human population, a group as prevalent as redheads.

Intersex people like Pagonis are born displaying both traditionally male and female sex characteristics, and they are typically treated by medical professionals as though they have an affliction that must be fixed in order to completely participate in society. That misconception, and the desire to reaffirm the construction of the sex and gender binary, have contributed to the prevalence of invasive and unnecessary surgeries performed on intersex children without the informed consent of parents or child.

Pagonis is a queer activist, academic, writer, and artist who underwent such non-consensual surgeries as a child and young adolescent for their androgen insensitivity syndrome, which gave them primarily female external sex characteristics in addition to internal testes. Today, they advocate for the understanding and acceptance of intersex people in the medical world by speaking and writing frankly about their experiences, and educating audiences on the realities of intersex.

Beloit College’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance was able to bring Pagonis, a 31-year-old Chicago native, to campus this week to affirm to students that “intersex is not abnormal, we’re just invisible.” They explained that the root of the medical conception of abnormality lies at the way clinicians are taught: first they learn what’s perceived as “normal,” then they learn what is “abnormal” in order to enforce the norm, and finally, they are taught intervention methods designed to eradicate the abnormal. In the case of sex characteristics, medical professionals have defined acceptable penis and clitoris sizes and enforce interventions for any individuals who fall outside of the norm, usually leading to clitorectomies for intersex children who are perceived as female, like Pagonis.

Tess Lydon/The Round Table

Pagonis screened their documentary, “The Son I Never Had: Growing Up Intersex,” which detailed their childhood interactions with medical professionals as an intersex person and how they and their family were lied to about the nature of their condition. Doctors told the family that Pagonis was born with ovarian cancer and needed to have surgery to remove their ovaries, then performed surgery to remove their internal testes instead.

In subsequent procedures, their genitalia was reconstructed without informed consent until it most closely resembled common perceptions of normal external female characteristics. Pagonis and their parents didn’t learn the extent or true intentions of the surgeries until they were able to access their complete medical records as a 19-year-old student at DePaul University. That was the first time Pagonis learned that they were intersex, and they struggled to come to terms with it after being told for so many years that they were a “normal” female and working to fit into that identity.

Since that time, they have worked to educate themself and others about the realities of medical misconceptions of intersex individuals and hope that unnecessary and non-consensual surgeries will be phased out in the future.

“The most powerful activism is when you can get to the microphone first and frame the situation,” Pagonis told those gathered on Thursday, both encouraging activists in the room and offering an explanation for the continued misunderstanding of intersex by medical professionals, who still have a much stronger voice than intersex children and their families.

Asked about their gender identity by an audience member, Pagonis said that while intersex people identify as all genders, they have never understood many people’s preoccupation with gender or associated with a particular one. “I just feel like my fucking self,” they said.

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