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Pidgeon Pagonis reveals a long held secret in 'Nobody Needs to Know'

Author Pidgeon Pagonis was raised a girl but was born with both female and male sexual organs. They tell their story of discovering who they really are in a memoir called "Nobody Needs to Know" released August 15, 2023.
Sarah Joyce
Courtesy of TOPPLE
Author Pidgeon Pagonis was raised a girl but was born with both female and male sexual organs. They tell their story of discovering who they really are in a memoir called "Nobody Needs to Know" released August 15, 2023.

Updated August 15, 2023 at 1:47 PM ET

Pidgeon Pagonis grew up not knowing who they really were.

They grew up in Chicago, playing softball, obsessing about fitting in at school and whether they would ever be date-worthy.

Before all the rites of teenage passage came, Pagonis would undergo surgeries that they knew little about. The truth was kept from them until they turned 18.

Pagonis was raised a girl but was born with both female and male sexual organs.

"My family doesn't really talk about stuff, the hard stuff. And so I was never told anything either about myself," Pagonis told NPR's Leila Fadel in an interview for Morning Edition about their new memoir released Tuesday.

Pagonis, now an intersex activist, tells their story in their new book called Nobody Needs to Know. That's a phrase Pagonis said they heard repeatedly during visits to the doctor. They told Pagonis' parents to tell their daughter that she was born with cancer in her ovaries and won't have a period. So Pagonis grew up thinking that they were a cancer survivor.

Years later, Pagonis was in a gender studies class at DePaul University when their professor introduced the term androgen insensitivity syndrome.

The book cover of the memoir "Nobody Needs to Know" by Pidgeon Pagonis.
/ Courtesy of Little A
Courtesy of Little A
The book cover of the memoir "Nobody Needs to Know" by Pidgeon Pagonis.

In reaction, Pagonis writes in their book:

"I felt my chest begin to tighten. It seemed like I was breathing through a pinch straw, like I was the only one in the classroom as everyone else faded away. I was in one of those weird-ass, surrealist Dali paintings where the clocks start to do whatever they're doing. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't scream. It was all a lie. Everyone had been lying to me my entire life."

This is when Pagonis understood themselves to be intersex, and when everything they had experienced biologically began to make sense.

Finally, they could understand why their body didn't go through puberty in the same way girls did. Finally, they could make sense of what the medical procedures were really doing to their body.

These highlights from the interview with Pidgeon Pagonis have been edited for clarity.

Leila Fadel: I mean, what was that like finding this out in a classroom?

Pidgeon Pagonis: I don't even believe it's like my life sometimes. But it was the most, like, earth shattering thing I've ever discovered about myself. I had gone to an all girls Catholic high school before that. I played on an all girls softball team. I had a boyfriend. I had no idea there was anything not girl about me, you know? So I grew up just desiring so deeply to be normal. I just prayed every night sometimes to just have a period. I remember literally praying all the time. Every time I went to the bathroom, sometimes I would see it. I would trick myself into thinking there's blood in my underwear just to be normal, quote on quote normal.

Because you would never experience puberty like the other girls in your school?

Right. I had to, like, secretly take pills, hormone replacement therapy to go through puberty. And all it did was kind of change my body in a way, but it doesn't give you a period or anything like that. So, I always knew there was something different about me, but I never had the language for what was different because no one wanted to give me the truth.

And that started to change after that class that day. It's the first time you've ever met another intersex person in this class that you had at school – Lynnell. If you could talk about that.

Well, I was lucky enough to get out of my smaller town. I go to college. I'm lucky because I meet queer people in queer community for the first time in my life. So, when I met Lynnell and they were like, "Have you ever said you're intersex before?" And I said, "No, I didn't want to."

I was still in shock and I didn't want to be different, and intersex to me just meant that you're super different now and you have a title for it. You know, it was just too much. Eventually, though — thanks to people like Lynnell and to being loved by other people like my first girlfriend who was queer — she loved me still after I told her.

Because you were so afraid of not being loved?

Yeah, I didn't tell anybody for a few years when I found out. It's weird because like today, I don't understand that. But back then it was so real that there's no way I could tell somebody and they would still talk to me — let alone love me.

I mean, Pidgeon, you literally wrote a book with the words the doctor told you, "Nobody needs to know." And it's all here for the world. And on top of that, it ends with you getting the hospital that did those surgeries on you to stop. I mean, this is a triumphant book.

Yeah, I know. It's a lot. I really don't know how to be anything but honest anymore. I think because I spent so long keeping secrets that there was a shift after I found out. The truth became like, my superpower. But with this book, it's tongue in cheek because I'm telling everybody. I hope that my story can live in the book and can be shared; and that I can now move away from sharing my individual story, and talking about the broader issues — and also my healing journey. I want to be a light at the end of the tunnel for other intersex people and for other people that are feeling different or shame. I want to just reclaim my life now.

A looking forward way... No longer looking back?

Yes, it's like I can't keep telling my story. And, so that's why I'm glad it's in the book. And pretty soon, I'm not going to tell my story anymore. It's going to be just uplifting the movement and other intersex people and organizations that are doing positive things and having wins and successes.

Taylor Haney produced the audio version of this story. Erika Aguilar edited the digital version. contributed to this story

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Reena Advani
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.