In January, Belgian model Hanne Gaby Odiele came out as intersex.
The 29-year-old Belgian model, who has walked the runways for Chanel, Dior and Alexander Wang, she came out, in part, to raise awareness about harmful and unnecessary surgeries performed on intersex babies in to attempt to “normalize” their bodies.
There is still a lack of understanding about what being intersex means—even among queer people: It’s a blanket term referring to people who are born with sex characteristics that fall outside the traditional notions of male and female bodies. Sometimes the differences are physical, other times chromosomal.
To help spread understanding and awareness, we spoke with Odiele about how her life’s changed since she came out, her experiences within the broader LGBT community, and what she wishes more people knew about being intersex.
October 26 is Intersex Awareness Day. For more information visit The Intersex Society of North America
How has your life changed since you came out as intersex?
I feel an overwhelming sense of freedom. I am so grateful that I’ve been able to help shine a spotlight on intersex human rights. Irreversible, un-consented surgeries on children must stop now. I will continue to share this vital message until we put an end to these abuses once and for all.
I feel humbled and privileged to use my platform as model to give a voice to other intersex people across the globe who have felt they have no voice. I’ll continue to speak out on this issue and work to persuade the world that intersex people deserve protection, love and acceptance.
What has the response from the fashion industry been? Has your career changed at all?
I’m so encouraged that the industry has fully embraced my disclosure and created additional opportunities for me to share my insights as an activist. This has played an important role in advancing this issue. I’ve also been inspired to see other colleagues in the industry make the decision to live their full truth, notably my friend Teddy Quinlivan who’s been living as her authentic self since she came out [as transgender] during New York Fashion Week and lit the runways on fire with her success.
I have never been treated differently than other models before or after my disclosure and hope it continues this way. I’m very happy the fashion industry is opening up to more intersectionality, and I think fashion and pop culture really can bring positive changes just by being inclusive.
Do you think of the intersex community as part of the LGBT community or as a distinctive group. Or both? Why?
We are all united in our quest to be treated equally under the law and with respect and dignity in our daily lives. We each have campaigns and initiatives unique to our individual communities, and I stand in solidarity with all in our community who are working for LGBTQI human rights. For intersex people, it’s about stopping irreversible and unnecessary surgeries imposed on us by a world that wants us to fit neatly into a male or female box.
I truly appreciate the LGBTQ and allied community standing with the intersex community, and I am proud to stand with them in their journey.
As an intersex activist, what have your experiences within the broader LGBT community been like?
I’ve been felt immense support from the LGBT+ community. Everyone I’ve encountered in the movement has been encouraging and eager to learn more about what’s at stake for intersex people. I think this issue is still new for many people, even in the LGBT+ community, but those I’ve met along my journey are very open to being educated and inspired to be intersex allies.
I also think intersex proves that sex, gender and sexuality goes far beyond what many of us were taught about these issues. I believe the existence of intersex people helps prove we’re all on a spectrum.
How can LGBT people be better allies to intersex people?
Listen to our stories. Understand the road we have traveled. Help us come out of isolation and break the stigma of what it means to be intersex. Stand with us and send a message that intersex rights are human rights. Stand with us as we work to put an end to to harmful, unnecessary surgeries.
It seems like the international intersex community is more linked now than ever. What’s it been like connecting with others, both IRL and online?
Indeed, the international intersex community is connected like never before. We have become a strong force for change. Led by advocacy champions like Interact: Advocates for Intersex Youth, Human Rights Watch and several other internationally recognized groups, we are coming out of the shadows and imploring world leaders to implement policies that protect intersex human rights.
More and more influential global entities are issuing declarations in support of intersex rights, including the United Nations High Commission on Human rights, the World Health Organization, and a U.S. medical association, GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality.
It’s been phenomenal to connect with the community in person and online. I am constantly moved and inspired by the courage and resilience of intersex people I have met along my path. They motivate me to fight even harder for for this cause.
What do you want more people understand about being intersex?
Nearly 2% of the population is born with intersex traits, similar to the number of people born with red hair. Despite how common it is to be intersex, laws, policies and medical best practices still fail to protect intersex people from unneeded and irreversible surgeries that are often both physically and psychologically detrimental. The surgical interventions are often driven by the fear of non-binary bodies, rather than medical necessity.
People want to put us in a “male” or “female” box, but, in reality sex, is on a spectrum. Intersex is just proof of this. It is time for intersex people to let go of shame and live as our true selves. Enough is enough.
Intersex people do not need fixing. We are perfectly fine just the way we are.
What message would you like to send to young intersex people?
Love yourself. Be proud of who you are. You can do anything. Being intersex is a beautiful, important part of the amazing, multidimensional person you are. Embrace who you are. I am standing with you. I am cheering you on.
I truly embrace being intersex and wouldn’t want it any different. I think it’s quite a gift, in my personal experience. I have let go of the unfair binary standard, and it has given me so much freedom. The only negative aspect is that we are still not protected. Healthy intersex kids are human beings and should be able to decide for themselves about surgery when they can make fully informed choices about their options.