"It's time for intersex people to come out of the shadows," cries 29-year-old Hanne Gaby Odiele down the phone from New York. It's been only a week since the Belgian model came out publicly as intersex, and already she's become the unofficial poster girl for the entire community. "I am finally at a time in my life where I am ready to share this important part of who I am," she beams. "It's time to get out there, get informed and be proud of who you are."
Born in Kortrijk, a tiny village in the Flemish countryside, Hanne was just like every other kid her age. She was a tomboy, had loads of energy, was obsessed with Nirvana, and dreamt of one day being a psychologist or perhaps even a politician. Yet she was also unlike most kids, in that she was born intersex, which is when an individual is born with sex characteristics that do not fit the typical definitions of male or female. It's what the 'I' stands for in LGBTQI, a community which up until now has not received the full attention it deserves. According to the United Nations, up to 1.7% of the population is born with intersex traits which, when you think about it, is roughly the equivalent to the number of redheads. Hanne was born with the intersex trait of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome; which is when a woman is born with both XY chromosomes, typically associated with men. For Hanne, this manifested in undescended testes, no ovaries, and no uterus, leaving her biologically unable to reproduce.
Due to a lack of information - this was at a time when you couldn't just type 'intersex' into Google and see what came up - and the perceived stigma of being 'different', doctors managed to scare Hanne's parents into agreeing to a devastating procedure, during which doctors removed her testicles. She was only 10 at the time. "They told my parents that I was the only one like me, that I wouldn't develop like a 'normal' girl, and that if I didn't have surgery I could get cancer," she recalls. "I felt so isolated and ashamed, like there was something wrong with me. No child should have to go through that."
It wasn't until she read an article in a Dutch teen magazine about an intersex girl that she finally learnt about her condition. The girl had been subjected to traumatic surgeries at a young age, didn't have her period, and wasn't able to have children, all of which Hanne could identify with. So she showed it to her doctor who at last confirmed that she was indeed intersex. Up until that point both Hanne and her parents had never even heard of the term. "The world is very binary," she sighs, "you either have to be male or female. That's why I was subjected to unnecessary surgery, just out of fear of having a non-binary body. But none of us should be forced into boxes. Thankfully things are starting to change."
Up until a week ago, Hanne was pretty much unknown to the world. Within the fashion industry, however, she's been known and loved by all since she was first scouted at Novarock festival, back in 2005. "It never crossed my mind to be a model," she says. "I was only 17 and had no clue what it would be like. I wasn't really into fashion, until I was in it. But I loved it!" In fact, it was working in fashion where she met her husband, fellow model John Swiatek, who she married last year. With her angular features, strong jawline, high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes, hers is the kind of otherworldly beauty that stops you in your tracks. Fittingly, she's walked for the cream of the crop, from Saint Laurent to Dior, Prada to Louis Vuitton, and has graced more magazine covers than we can count, but it wasn't always rosy.
When we think of Fashion Week, we think of the shows, the parties, the dinners, the beautiful clothes, beautiful people, the whole spectacle. We don't consider a young model's pain and isolation, her knowing that as soon as she stepped off her last catwalk that she'd have to hop on a plane home and undergo a very serious operation of vaginal reconstruction, which is an incredibly taxing procedure, both physically and mentally, and ultimately could have exposed Hanne to all sorts of problems and infections. "I was 18-years-old and I'd just got home from fashion week," she recalls, "it was horrible, I really regret it. There is nothing wrong with being intersex, but having these unnecessary surgeries makes it feel like there's something wrong with you."
Sex and gender have become part of the cultural conversation in a way it's never been before. Thanks to our digital culture, people from all over the world who identify as being anywhere along the spectrum can connect with and support each other. No longer confined to the backwaters of the internet, these discussions are slowly being assimilated into the mainstream. "The internet plays a key role," Hanne says, "through it we can create an online community, so that intersex people no longer have to feel so isolated. The more people share their story, the more the world understands and accepts intersex people. This is why I am speaking out and sharing my story: to bring awareness to the horrible treatment of intersex children and in doing so prevent them being subjected to unnecessary and harmful surgeries."
In a further effort to spread awareness, Hanne has teamed up with InterACT Advocates for Intersex Youth, a non-profit organisation which campaigns for the rights and visibility of intersex people worldwide. "I finally accept myself and live openly as a proud intersex woman," Hanne says. "I operate with my own set of rules, and I feel free to be who I am. I want every intersex person to feel like this. I want them to feel protected, respected and valued all over the world." With someone as kind-hearted and brave as Hanne fighting their corner, we hope they soon will do.
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Mayan Toledano