Pidgeon Pagonis on the Urgency of Writing a Memoir as an Intersex Writer
Developmental Editor Kenny Porpora in Conversation with the Author of Nobody Needs to Know
Pidgeon and I met in the summer of 2020, the summer of sickness, and violent change. We spoke over Zoom, nearly 800 miles apart—I had been hired as a developmental editor for an intersex activist named Pidgeon Pagonis. A developmental editor is a bit of a catch-all title: we do a bit of ghostwriting, editing, and coaching. We help develop and guide the story. Or, as one editor explained it: think of your agent as your literary lawyer, and your developmental editor as your literary therapist.
It was an unprecedented time for historically excluded people, and Pidgeon’s life-affirming story of resilience, identity, and social justice was timely. The memoir is about an intersex baby, born into the hands of negligent doctors. It’s about a person who endures unspeakable violations to their body, their spirit, and their autonomy.
But in Pidgeon’s hands, it’s also a celebration of that life, and the story of a person standing up and saying “Enough!” It’s a story of a person fighting back against a broken system. It’s a warm, often hilarious, heart-rending tale of a person discovering their true self.
I recently sat down with Pidgeon in the West Village to reminisce about our work together.
Kenny Porpora: When I think about our work, so much of it happened when the world felt like it was at a breaking point. How did that tension and uncertainty affect your approach to writing?
Pidgeon Pagonis: Writing my memoir amidst the global pandemic and the uprising for racial justice gave me a heightened sense of urgency. The world was at a breaking point, as you said, and I had an unsettling awareness of how it mirrored the personal struggles I have faced as an intersex individual. The denial of harm, the vulnerability, the anger, the loss, the fight to be heard and to effect change. The convergence of crises shed light on the interconnectedness of social injustices, emphasizing the need for so many voices like mine to be heard.
The necessity to promote bodily autonomy—in my case through challenging the gender binary, advocating for intersex rights—was more critical than ever. Writing Nobody Needs to Know reflected and amplified the collective demand for change during that transformative period. It was impossible to tune out from the world, even on the days when I just wanted to take a break.
KP: You’ve been a public figure for years, and highly visible in the intersex space, giving talks and being a thought leader. But writing a memoir is a totally different kind of way of sharing your story. How did the concept of turning your life into a memoir first come to you?
PP: I’m not even going to lie, it’s because I was broke. With the pandemic I had lost almost all my speaking engagements. Even those that already had signed contracts were cancelled without payment. I was starting to panic about income, and then I received a blessed phone call from my friend Joey Soloway who told me they had started a publishing imprint called TOPPLE and they asked if I would be interested in telling my story.
I was kind of wary because I didn’t have faith that I could accomplish the feat of writing a book. I love to tell stories, but I didn’t know the first thing about turn those into a memoir. Yet, when TOPPLE offered that I could work with you as my editor, I immediately jumped on the opportunity and the rest is history!
KP: Throughout the course of this book, we see you as an activist, fighting against a hospital in Chicago to stop doctors from operating on intersex children. You played a big role in that fight, but during our collaboration, there were moments where you seemed almost reluctant to take credit for the changes that were made.
Other times, you were downright insistent that other people in the trans, intersex, and non-binary community share the credit. Can you speak to the role community played in your story?
PP: First of all, the hospital you speak of is Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, and it’s the same hospital that stripped me (and so many others like me) of my bodily autonomy as a young intersex child. And yes, I played a big role in getting them to become the first hospital in the country to end the surgeries on intersex kids and to apologize for the harm they had done.
But none of that would have been possible without community. I grew up in a rich community of activists here in Chicago, and they taught me everything I know about fighting back and community organizing. That’s how I was able to co-found Intersex Justice Project and work with other organizations and people in my city to confront Lurie’s Sex and Gender Clinic—which is one of the best accomplishments of my life.
People say this all the time but it’s so true; there’s no way I could have done any of that without other people. I’m forever grateful to everyone in Chicago, and across the world, who helped IJP win our #EndIntersexSurgery campaign against Lurie.
KP: In one of the book’s most powerful passages, you confront one of the lead surgeons of Lurie’s Children’s Hospital to demand he stop performing surgeries on intersex children. It’s a tense, brave, and darkly funny scene that shows the lengths you were willing to go to seek justice.
It’s also such a pivotal scene because it resides at the intersection of the personal and the political. Yes, you wanted systemic change, but these doctors had also stolen so much from you as a human being, and you wanted answers. What was it like to relive that moment? How did you bring this scene to life?
PP: What struck me most about reliving this was how angry I still was at the people who hurt me. Actually, I don’t even know if “angry” is the right word. Whenever I actually slow down and give myself the time and space to think about what happened, to feel my feelings, a wave of devastation just completely washes over me. I know I’m supposed to say time heals all and that I forgave them. But that wasn’t, and still isn’t, my experience.
The truth is, I am still deeply hurt by their audacious disregard for my autonomy. Experiencing those emotions was crucial to breathing life into my writings. It was essential for me to convey authenticity and enable the reader to share in the same frustration, fear, and fury I felt when I lived through it. So, writing about that meeting with Earl Cheng, I was able to channel those feelings.
On the flip side, I made sure to include some funny moments too (like when I mention wanting to kick Earl). I really love using comedy to share my story and message. It’s like a lifeline for me, you know? It keeps me going and helps me find humor in all the crazy things people like me experience, being born outside of the binary.
KP: What do you hope people come away with after reading your story? What do you want them to know about you and the intersex community?
PP: I hope they come away with a fire inside of them, and I want them to use that fire to help create a better world for future intersex babies. I want them to get motivated to do things like support intersex organizations like InterAct, demand their local children’s hospitals stop harming intersex babies, and tell all their friends and family to leave intersex kids alone until they are able to make their own decisions about their care.
I also want everyone to realize that more than eighty percent of the anti-trans bills that have popped up across the country have specific carveouts that exempt intersex surgeries from their bans—proving that these bills are not about protecting children. This marks the first-time intersex surgeries have moved out of the shadows of secretive clinics and into law. This is an urgent crisis. I want people to read this book and then just let us grow up in the beautiful, healthy bodies we were born with.
Nobody Needs to Know: A Memoir by Pidgeon Pagodis is available via Topple Books.