Hanne Gaby Odiele wants to end the taboo and talk openly about non-binary sex and gender in the fashion world...and everywhere

By Julia Malacoff
January 24, 2017

If you're into fashion, you will probably recognize Hanne Gaby Odiele. She's a Belgian fashion model who has appeared in major magazines as well as advertising campaigns for designers such as Alexander Wang and brands like Topshop. She also happens to be intersex, which she revealed as part of a campaign with InterACTAdvocates for Intersex Youth, an organization that advocates for intersex visibility and awareness.

Intersex people are born with physical characteristics of both the female and male sexes, meaning their sex organs, hormones, and chromosomes don't completely align with either female or male. Different from people who are transgender and identify with a different gender than their birth sex, intersex people are born with physical differences that don't place them squarely in one category. Yesterday, Odiele announced her participation in InterACT's campaign and also opened up about what it means to her to be intersex. "It is very important to me in my life right now to break the taboo," she told USA Today. With 1.7 percent of people worldwide born intersex, according to the United Nations, it's important to dispel any negative connotations and clear up misunderstandings about what it actually means. After all, the number of people in the world population who are intersex is similar to the number who are naturally red-headed. Seriously.

Odiele explained that she was born with androgen insensitivity syndrome, a condition where a person is genetically male with an X and a Y chromosome, but their body is unable to respond to male sex hormones, causing them to appear female on the outside. Because Odiele had a procedure to remove internal undescended testes in her abdomen at such a young age (just 10 years old), she felt didn't have much choice or chance to weigh her options when it came time to have surgery. She also shared that at the time, she wasn't well-informed about what being intersex actually meant, which is the case for many intersex children and their parents, who are often led to believe that surgery is required. "I knew at one point after the surgery I could not have kids; I was not having my period," she said in the interview. "I knew something was wrong with me." She also went through vaginal reconstructive surgery at age 18, which is regarded as a cosmetic procedure, and some might say even unnecessary if a person is comfortable being intersex. "It's not that big of a deal being intersex," she said. "If they were just honest from the beginning... It became a trauma because of what they did."

Usually, testicular tissue is removed from the abdomen because it's prone to malignancies, but still, it's easy to understand why Odiele would want to feel like she had some agency over the decision to have the surgery or not.

Various organizations have been making efforts to raise awareness of intersex issues, and it does seem like it's working. In December 2016, New York City issued the first intersex birth certificate in United States history, which acknowledges that it's a sex identifier, just like male or female.