A TV program I enjoy watching is CBS News Sunday Morning with Jane Pauley. Recently, they featured a story on intersex and this brought to mind the fashion model I interviewed for my book “Pushing The Boundaries” (pushingtheboundaries.life). Hanne Gaby Odiele is a young, world-famous model, originally from Belgium, who risked her reputation by coming out in support of intersex youth. In so doing, she prompted us to stand up for what we believe in, no matter what the cost.
Hanne's a delightfully striking, blonde, blue eyed young lady whose poker-faced seriousness belies the joy within her. She agreed to talk with me in New York City where she now lives. While we would surely discuss her high-flying fashion model life, it was her recent, risky, history-making revelation about being intersex that intrigued me. You see, she went public with this admission in an attempt to reduce the stigma around the condition and encourage other intersex people to embrace their status. Until meeting her, you could count me among those who didn’t even know that intersex exists.
Hanne was born in 1987 with internal testes, but no uterus, no ovaries. This was due to a condition they called androgen insensitivity syndrome. Her parents simply took it for granted that they had a daughter. What they didn't know at that time was that sweet little Hanne was intersex. "The doctors told my parents, 'Oh, don't worry, we can just change her by surgery,'" she told me. "'Your daughter will never even know. It's all going to be OK.' And off they went without informed consent."
Like many intersex children, Hanne was forced to undergo a surgical operation as a baby to make her female. That's because with intersex children, it's easier to remove body parts than to put them on. In this case, the doctors chose to perform surgery to make her genitals look more “normal.” She was kept in the dark about her situation, only learning about the intersex condition at age 17, around the time she began her modelling career. She'd already had further surgery when she was 10 years old, this time to remove undescended testicles. Why the operation? "Because doctors warned this could cause cancer," she revealed to me. Hanne now believes that was a lie. "There was no medical evidence that I was going to get cancer," she explained. "I mean, c'mon: women don't get their breasts sliced off because they might get breast cancer. Men don't have their testicles severed because they might get prostate cancer."
She told me she would be made to pay a visit to a doctor for "scary treatments" every few months. She'd enter a room and her parents would be asked to leave. "Then, all of a sudden, the doctors are joined by four students who come into the room and they all look at my genitals, and they put a blanket over my eyes. I can still feel them touch me and look at me and call me by numbers. They always said, 'She has a bladder problem', and I was like, 'Mmmm, there's something more…'"
At 18, Hanne experienced more surgery, this time to reconstruct her vagina. Not surprisingly, the procedure caused her distress and extreme consequences: "Like, they cut away sensitive parts and that led to having no feeling," she explains. "Sex becomes very difficult, even the idea in your mind... Also, incontinence – no bladder control... My identity is female, but I will never know how it is to bear a child, never know how to have a period or to talk about many of the things that females think are important to them."
Now you know why Hanne Gaby Odiele is speaking out to discourage parents from putting their children through unnecessary surgery in an effort to make them appear more typically male or female. "I am proud to be intersex," she states. "But I'm also very angry that these surgeries are still happening. It's not that big of a deal being intersex. If they were just honest from the beginning... it became a trauma for me because of what they did. That's why it's very important in my life right now to break the taboo."
Interested to learn more about intersex? Check out Chapter 16 of “Pushing The Boundaries” (pushingtheboundaries.life).