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Pidgeon Pagonis: On their film, White House visit, being on 'Transparent'
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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Self described gender non-conforming intersex activist and filmmaker and Chicago native, Pidgeon Pagonis ( born in 1986 on the Northwest Side of Chicago ) has been making waves in the LGBTQIA community for about a decade including their documentary, "The Son I Never Had: Growing Up Intersex."

Northwestern University's Rainbow Alliance recently hosted a screening and discussion of Pagonis' film at Harris Hall.

"It felt like a homecoming of sorts," said Pagonis. "Growing up and going to Children's Memorial Hospital [now Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago] my resident doctors were students at Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern. Also, it's rare that I get booked at a Chicago venue, so it was nice to have my closest friends in the audience. It was a beautiful, amazing experience and the students asked some of the best questions I've ever been asked."

This wasn't the first time Pagonis has screened their film, having traveled to 20 different venues, mostly outside of Chicago, since 2014. Pagonis recently got a grant from the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice's Intersex Fund to put the finishing touches on the film. They also plan on submitting it to film festivals in the coming months and will release it for free with a companion website for people to go for resources and call to action information on Intersex Awareness Day next year.

As for the most meaningful place Pagonis has shown their film, they said the 2014 Intersex Conference in Cincinnati to a room full of only intersex people and some of their family members and friends.

"That was the most emotional moment for me regarding my film and its impact," said Pagonis. "It felt like all of us were healing ourselves and each other while watching my film."

Pagonis explained that their documentary is an auto ethnographic storytelling piece.

"I was inspired by Audre Lord's autobiography which she called a 'biomythography,'" said Pagonis. "I string together two different voices—one is myself and my family's subjective voice and the other is the objective voice of science and reason which is me reading my medical records."

They noted that intersex babies occur in one out of every 2,000 births which is the same amount of red heads in the world.

"I went to an all -girls Catholic high school in the suburbs," said Pagonis. "It's interesting because I'm intersex, but I didn't know it back then. What I don't talk about much is I was into traveling softball which I did almost every day of my life for a long time. This saved me from going to church regularly because we had tournaments on the weekends."

Digital cinema was Pagonis' first choice for their college major but they switched to women and gender studies shortly after entering DePaul University. They also received their master of arts in women and gender studies from DePaul University.

"In my thesis class, I came up with the idea of doing a written ethnography and then I turned it into my film," said Pagonis.

Pagonis joined interACT youth ( the world's first intersex youth project ) while still in college and later served as an intern. They parlayed that into a combined full-time job consisting of the communications and operations manager and youth leadership coordinator. As communications and operations manager, Pagonis was, among other tasks, in charge of all the social media.

"My work as the youth leadership coordinator is what meant the most to me," said Pagonis. "Youth project members at interACT worked with the cast and crew of Faking It to help write the intersex character Lauren played by the fabulous Bailey De Young. We would get the scripts in advance and provide the producers and Bailey with feedback about her character. We did a Q&A with Bailey and she also came to our intersex conference last year. Every young person at the conference was adoring her."

Their many accolades includes being published in the Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics academic journal, being awarded by the White House as an LGBT Champion of Change in November 2015, being featured in the documentary Intersexion and becoming one of Windy City Times' 30 Under 30 awardees in 2013.

"The cool part about it was that edition's editor was intersex and a friend of mine from here in Chicago," said Pagonis. "What's interesting is they wanted stories from intersex people and 'experts' to have balance for that edition of the journal."

Pagonis explained that, about eight years ago, they were contacted by New Zealand intersex activist Mani Bruce Mitchell about their Intersexion documentary. Mitchell would later become a mentor to Pagonis.

"Mani came to Chicago and interviewed me," said Pagonis. "We had this connection right off the bat and commiserated about our horrible airport experiences because of being intersex."

The White House Champion of Change event is what led Pagonis to the set of Transparent. Pagonis' old boss at interACT nominated them and after passing a background check they were told they would be honored.

"My dad, who was a key person in my documentary, was my plus one and I was so happy he got to see me get an award for my work," said Pagonis. "It was a beautiful moment to be able to speak my truth about being intersex in front of everyone there, but most importantly my dad who told me how proud he was of me. I was really excited and nervous, but it was a great memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life."

Among the other awardees that day was the cast and creators of Transparent and Pagonis ended up meeting them ahead of the day's events.

"At the time I'd never even heard of the show and then, a few months later, I was in Transparent," said Pagonis. "We started reminiscing about Chicago because so many of the people from the show are from here. Amy Landecker and my dad talked about her dad, John Records Landecker, because my dad liked him as a radio DJ. Jill Soloway and I talked about all the things we love about Chicago. I spent the most time with Alexandra Billings because she was the moderator of the panel I was on. She did an excellent job. I loved it when Jeffrey Tambour told the audience that because he has white, straight, male, cisgender privilege he gives free acting classes to transgender actors to help them achieve their goals. The entire cast and creative team were wonderful."

Pagonis noted that the show rolled out the red carpet in every way imaginable, including transportation, airfare, lodging and access to a golf cart while on set.

"I met Pidgeon on the grand steps of the White House," said Soloway. "I'd been Twitter crushing on them for awhile and we hit it off right away. Pidgeon is a brilliant activist and artist, and they inspired the Transparent writers to write the role of Baxter for them as an intersex person working the volunteer crisis hotline at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. When they visited Los Angeles for the shoot we spent tons of time together. My sister Faith and I loved sharing hometown vibes with Pidgeon and entertaining one another with the most extreme version of our Chicago accents as possible. Pidgeon instantly became part of my family and the Topple and Transparent family."

Pagonis appeared in the first episode of season three in the scenes where Maura was volunteering at the crisis hotline.

"One of the other characters said, 'It's so great to be under the transbella with all of you' and that's when the other character points out that I'm intersex so I had to explain what being intersex means," Pagonis said. "It was a way for Jill to get intersex visibility on the show. When I got to the set Jill told me that I could throw my lines away that I'd been nervously trying to memorize and be natural because the role was written for me.

"Jeffrey seemed really interested in my story, what being intersex means and the issues around it. It was a bonding moment when I was telling everyone my story in the scene. It was really beautiful and the first time I felt like anyone with status in Hollywood really wanted to hear, not just the glossy parts of being intersex, but also issues we face. Jill kept on saying go into all the issues. She wanted to learn everything about my community."

In terms of this year's Intersex Awareness Day ( Oct. 26 ), Pagonis is formulating some ideas and will relay them via social media. Last year, Pagonis did a Twitter power hour using the hashtag #intersexstories.

In the week leading up to Intersex Awareness Day, Pagonis screened their documentary in Boston and New York City.

In their spare time, Pagonis likes to run, ride their bike, paint watercolors, do photography and go to live music in Chicago especially the new Chicago renaissance hip-hop, soul and R&B scene.

They also make intersex and gender affirming T-shirts that can be purchased via their website.

"My message to the world is what happens to intersex people are violations of our human rights," said Pagonis. "Everyone deserves bodily autonomy no matter who we are and intersex people should be the only ones deciding whether we get surgery. Currently, we're working with the United Nations to amplify these ideals."

See for more information and to access Pagonis' social-media accounts.

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