Supermodel Hanne Gaby Odiele reveals she is intersex, and underwent ‘traumatising, unnecessary’ surgery

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 January, 2017, 1:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 January, 2017, 10:14pm

She has strutted the runways of New York, Paris and Milan. Posed for the pages of Vogue. Represented fashion labels like Chanel and Dior.

But for Hanne Gaby Odiele, a 29-year-old supermodel from Kortrijk, Belgium, one of her most momentous shoots of all came last week.

With minimal makeup, in the offices of her modelling agency in New York, Odiele smiled as a camera began recording.

“Hi, I’m Hanne,” she said cheerfully, only later admitting to being nervous. “And I’m excited to let the world know I’m intersex.”

On Monday - with the release of a series of those videos - Odiele became one of a few prominent figures to publicly reveal she was born intersex, an umbrella term that describes people with sex traits that are not clearly male or female.

Nearly 2 per cent of the world’s population is born with intersex traits, according to InterACT, although other estimates are less than one-hundredth of that, depending on how the condition is defined.

“Most people don’t know we exist,” Odiele, who made her announcement in conjunction with the group, said in one video. For more than a year, she had wrestled with how she might speak out about her own story: about the silence and confusion surrounding her medical treatments in childhood, the painful surgeries she underwent before she could truly consent.

“I’m speaking out because it’s time this mistreatment comes to an end,” Odiele added. “It caused me way too much pain.”

According to the Intersex Society of North America, intersex traits include reproductive or sexual anatomy that are not clearly typically male or female.

“For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside,” the group notes on its page devoted to questions about what it means to be intersex. “Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types - for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia.”

Intersex traits are not limited to anatomy, either: A person could also be born with “mosaic genetics,” with some cells having XX chromosomes and others XY, according to the group. While some people’s intersex traits are identified at birth, others only discover such characteristics later in life.

Odiele was born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, or AIS, with XY chromosomes typically found in men. She was 10 years old when she underwent surgery in Belgium to remove undescended testes, she said.

At the time, awareness about intersex people was scant. Doctors told her parents she might get cancer if she didn’t undergo such surgery, so they agreed - but doctors never disclosed to Odiele why.

“No one ever told me about intersex,” Odiele said by phone Tuesday. “They told me I was abnormal, [that] I shouldn’t talk to anybody.”

When she was 18 years old, she had vaginal reconstructive surgery; to this day, she describes it as deeply traumatising. It was around that time that Odiele typed in some of her “symptoms” online and found a Dutch teenage magazine profiling girls who had been born intersex.

“That’s how I found out,” Odiele said. “I told it to my doctor: ‘Is this me?’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, you finally found out.’ Then I met some people in the Dutch AIS community. ... They were a huge inspiration at that point.”

Still, Odiele’s modeling career was just taking off. She would soon move to New York and immerse herself in her career, traveling the world for fashion shows and photo shoots. Because of that, for many years she said she “didn’t really pay too much attention to the whole intersex community.”

Last year, however, Odiele began revisiting support groups online.

“I started going on the forums again and reading stories again and remembering how traumatic it was for me,” Odiele said. Though she had become comfortable discussing being intersex with her husband, close friends and family members, she never forgot how isolated she had felt growing up - or how upset she felt about the “irreversible, unconsented and unnecessary” surgeries she underwent.

“These surgeries have caused way more harm than good,” she said in one of the videos taped last week. “I don’t want to have any other kid to suffer the way I did. It’s time to break the stigma.”