Model Hanne Gaby Odiele poses in Stella McCartney at the Stella McCartney Spring 2015 Presentation at Elizabeth Street Gardens in New York City. Odiele, 29, announced on Jan. 23, 2017, that she was born intersex. (JP Yim/Getty Images)
Cox Media Group National Content Desk
A Belgian model known for her street style has become one of the first high-profile faces of the intersex community.
Hanne Gaby Odiele announced Monday that she is intersex, a condition in which a person is born with a reproductive system that is not typically male or female. Odiele, 29, of Kortrijk, Belgium, said she is speaking out to break the silence about the condition.
“It is very important to me in my life right now to break the taboo,” Odiele told USA Today. “At this point, in this day and age, it should be perfectly all right to talk about this.”
Scroll down to see a video of Odiele talking about being intersex
The New York-based runway model, who has worked for brands like Chanel, Dior and Alexander Wang, has teamed up with interACT, Advocates for Intersex Youth, a nonprofit organization that aims to give a voice to intersex children. The organization also fights what it calls human rights violations -- surgeries to which many children are subjected in order to make them more typically male or female.
USA Today reported that Odiele was born with androgen insensitivity syndrome, which left her with XY chromosomes more typically found in men. Doctors found that she had internal, undescended male sex organs that her parents had surgically removed when she was 10 years old.
Odiele said her parents were told that she could develop cancer if they were not removed, and that she would not develop as a typical female. As a child, she said, she did not fully comprehend what was happening.
“I knew at one point after the surgery, I could not have kids, I was not having my period,” Odiele told USA Today. “I knew something was wrong with me.”
Odiele also underwent external reconstructive surgery when she was 18, about a year after her modeling career began.
Odiele said the surgeries were traumatic, mostly because of the misleading information that she and her parents were given. According to interACT, the surgical interventions to which children are subjected are driven more by fear of “non-binary” bodies than by medical necessity.
Kimberly Zieselman, executive director of interACT, told USA Today that she was 40 years old, married and the mother of two adopted children when she learned the truth about her condition. She had surgery at 15 to remove what doctors told her parents was a partially formed female reproductive system. As in Odiele’s case, the concern for her parents was the development of cancer later in life.
When she obtained her medical records years later, she was stunned, Zieselman said. She never had female organs, partial or otherwise. What doctors had removed were internal, undescended male organs.
“My story, quite frankly, is not unique. Hundreds of women have a similar story,” Zieselman told the newspaper.
The United Nations estimates that up to 1.7 percent of the population is born with intersex traits. That percentage is similar to the percentage of people born with red hair.
InterACT’s main priority, according to a news release issued Monday, is to stop medically unnecessary treatment and other human rights violations faced by intersex children.
“It is time for intersex people to come out of the shadows, claim our status, let go of shame and speak out against the unnecessary and harmful surgeries many of us were subjected to as children,” Odiele said in the news release. “Intersex children born today are still at risk for these human rights violations. I will use my voice and platform to help end such abuses.”