Belgian model reveals she is intersex, speaks up for intersex children

It’s always a good day when a new voice comes out to fight against taboos and for equality by sharing a truth about themselves. Today, it’s Belgian model Hanne Gaby Odiele, who has revealed in an exclusive interview with USA Today that she is intersex.

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For those who are unclear about what being “intersex” means, here’s how the Intersex Society of North America defines it: “‘Intersex’ is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy [or chromosomes] that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of male or female.” In Odiele’s case, for example, was born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which means that she has the XY chromosomes typically found only in men. She was also born with internal, undescended testicles. Approximately 1.7 percent of the population is born intersex, which is, as the article points out, about the same amount of people who are born redheads.

“It is an important part of my life to talk about this… At this point, in this day and age, it should be perfectly alright to talk about this,” Odiele told USA Today.

Of particular importance to the model is the issue of surgeries performed on intersex children before they are old enough to understand what it means and what they want. Odiele’s parents were told that her internal testes were a cancer risk, and so she had surgery at the age of 10 to have them removed. Many intersex girls will have this surgery as infants. The ISNA argues that since “testicular cancer is rare before puberty,” girls should be allowed to make this decision for themselves later in life.

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That surgery was difficult for Odiele, as was the second operation she had at 18 to reconstruct her vagina. “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… I am proud to be intersex, but very angry that these surgeries are still happening.”

When a child is born with a difference, the instinct of many parents is to “fix” it so that their child will not have to bear the pain of being different. I was born with a physical disability, and my mother also received suggestions from doctors for surgeries that might make me more “normal.” Thankfully, she said no to them all. To know that you were operated on with your parent’s consent in order to change you must be a painful feeling, especially when the reason is cosmetic or unnecessary. We all want to feel that we have always been loved unconditionally. Our bodies are our most precious and personal possessions, and it can feel like a violation to have it altered — even if it was thought to be in our best interest — without our full consent.

Odiele and other intersex advocates hope that her story will help raise awareness about what it means to be intersex and make parents think differently about agreeing to unneeded and potentially emotionally scarring surgeries for their intersex children.

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