Belgian model Hanne Gaby Odiele is no stranger to the limelight. However, this time, it’s not in the name of fashion: Odiele has come out as intersex. She has affirmed her commitment to champion the intersex community – one that has for so long been shrouded in secrecy and shame.
Odiele revealed she was born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), an intersex condition occurring in 1 in 20,000 births. She is now perhaps one of the most high-profile intersex people, and hopes that she can ‘break the taboo’ surrounding intersex people. The United Nations (UN) estimates around 1.7% of people are born with intersex traits – around the same number of people with red hair.
AIS, as explained by the Intersex Society of North America, is an inherited genetic condition, with an occurrence of 1 in 20,000. The body cannot respond to androgen hormone – also known as ‘male’ hormones – and, at birth, individuals can present with ‘female’ or ambiguous external genitalia. As a foetus, testes also develop, but sexual development cannot happen as expected, as the body does not respond to androgens such as testosterone. These testes remain inside the body, hence, development of the uterus, ovaries and cervix does not take place.
Surgery to ‘correct’ intersex genitalia is common practice, as was Odiele’s experience. She revealed she underwent surgery to remove her testes at the age of ten, but this also happens to infants and younger children. She later had further surgery to reconstruct the vagina. Odiele describes her experiences as traumatic – a view supported by the UN, which has condemned such surgeries as human rights violations. These surgeries are irreversible, cause infertility, and serve to force a binary gender upon the child. Likewise, children often have no voice in the process of surgery, with parents or physicians consenting on their behalf, and feel betrayed when they learn about their intersex identity.
Odiele states that ‘you can be whoever you want’, regardless of intersex identity – perhaps a revolutionary ‘fuck you’ against a traumatic and coerced identity.
[Amy Shimmin – @amylfc]