A 29-year-old Belgian supermodel recently became one of the first public figures to reveal that she’s intersex. Hanne Gaby Odiele, who has walked the runway for the most famous fashion houses including Prada, Givenchy and Channel, has gone public with her status in order to remove the stigma from one of the least understood gender identities. According to the United Nations:
- 1.7% of the population is intersex, equivalent to the number of people with naturally red hair
- Many keep their condition a secret
- The condition starts at birth, but it’s often not spotted until puberty
What does it mean to be intersex, you may ask? In Hanne’s case, she was born with internal testes and without a uterus or ovaries. This is due to a condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome, and Hanne is male in terms of chromosomes, but her outer appearance is female. This occurs because her body rejects the male hormone called androgen, explaining her feminine looks.
Being intersex is often misunderstood because Hanne’s case is not the only way to be intersex. There are more than 30 different variations in which a person’s reproductive anatomy and chromosomes don’t match their gender or their outward appearance.
In an interview with Vogue, Hanne told a story about her childhood. When she was 2 weeks old, her parents took her to the hospital because of an infection. The doctors did all the standard tests, including blood-work, and told her parents that their little boy would be fine.
This confused Hanne’s parents, since they thought that whole time they were raising a little girl. The blood tests revealed Hanne’s AIS and her parents then proceeded to take her to many specialists.
When she reached puberty, Hanne noticed that she wasn’t like other girls. She couldn’t menstruate, and she was told she would never have kids. She underwent a surgery to remove the unformed reproductive organs, a practice that is considered controversial and unnecessary by most intersex people.
One of the things she hopes to do by advocating for intersex people is to lower the rate of these surgeries. Hanne said that her own procedure caused her a lot of distress, and that she wishes parents would stop putting their children through these kinds of invasive operations.
“It’s not that big of a deal being intersex,” she said during her interview with USA Today. “If they were just honest from the beginning. It became a trauma because of what they did.”
According to the United Nations, sex-assignment surgeries performed on intersex children can cause infertility, lifelong pain, loss of sexual sensation and mental suffering. They are considered a violation of human rights when performed without proper consent, which is often the case because most parents make the decision for their children before they reach adulthood.
Hanne has teamed up with InterACT Advocates for Intersex Youth, a non-profit organization that aims to support intersex youth. Kimberly Zieselman, executive director of interACT, believes Hanne will be a powerful champion for the intersex community, not just because of the visibility that she brings to the group, but also because of her advocacy against medical procedures that do more damage than help children who are intersex.
Hanne is married to fellow model John Swiatek. He told USA Today that he was proud of his wife for speaking out, adding: “I am very impressed with her decision to advocate for intersex children in order to give them an opportunity to make up their own minds about their bodies, unlike the lack of options and information Hanne and her family (and many others) were given.”
Swiatek reportedly said that it takes “a lot to embarrass Hanne” and that she first told him about her condition when they first started dating. He was unfazed, and replied with: “Oh, that’s cool. I’m adopted!”
Recently, the first US Birth certificate issued with “intersex” in the identity box was issued. This was done when the department of health and mental hygiene of New York City corrected the original birth certificate of Sara Kelly Keenan.
Hanne said her decision to come out was fueled by the need to stop the invasive surgeries from happening, but that she was also inspired by Hari Nef and Andreja Pejic, two trans models who have also walked all the major catwalks around the world.
Ilene Wong, a urologist who specializes in treating intersex adults, said in that interview with Vogue that she’s happy the landscape is changing for intersex people. “[Everything] finally changing as people are becoming more aware of the consequences. Some things don’t need to be fixed! There are times when there is medical necessity, but almost all of the surgeries are purely cosmetic—and can leave people scarred, unable to have intercourse, and possibly experiencing early menopause.”
The decision changed her life, as well as her parents’, who now urge other parents of intersex children to be open and transparent, and to seek education on the condition before taking any drastic medical decisions.