BEING INTERSEX: HANNE GABY ODIELE
words by Ellie Brown
“Hello!” answers a chirpy Hanne Gaby Odiele on the phone from New York. The Belgian model has been in the news a lot as of late, following her revelation back in January that she is intersex in an interview for USA Today. It’s because of this disclosure and her support of non-profit organisation InterACT Advocates for Intersex Youth that we’re talking – but Odiele has long been a familiar face in the fashion industry. Hanne first hit the runway back in September 2005, debuting for Marc by Marc Jacobs. Fast forward to the present day, the now 29-year-old has opened countless high-profile shows, featured in numerous campaigns – and is a regular on street style blogs.
In a video for InterACT, coinciding with the USA Today interview, Hanne says, in the same upbeat manner she talks on the phone, that she’s “speaking out because it’s time this mistreatment ends”. That is, the surgical procedures that are often forced on intersex children to realign them as either a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’. Though being intersex is relatively common (around 2%, which is the same as having red hair – as Odiele states in the video), it’s not something that’s often spoken about. At least until now, of course.
The responses since the video for InterACT have been overwhelming positive; Hanne tells me that she’s had “nothing but good reactions from parents of intersex children”. It’s little wonder why; Odiele is one of the first high-profile figure to make such a revelation. Given that parents of intersex children are often forced into making the decision to go ahead with irreversible procedures on the unfounded understanding that failure to act could cause cancer (as Odiele’s own parents were told), any publicity for the intersex community is crucial.
The internet and social media has undoubtedly had a profound impact on garnering exposure for the intersex community. Hanne agrees; “I feel like it’s amazing. People can find a community [online]. It’s a great way for people to get in touch with others.” This ability to connect with others online is a far cry from when Odiele was growing up as a teenager in a “tiny village” in Belgium. It was here by chance that Odiele found a story in a magazine about someone who was ‘like her’ and was able to get in touch with other intersex people.
Hanne paints a picture of an isolated childhood – “when I was younger, I was told to be quiet about it and to hide myself; it was very lonely.” The hope that intersex children won’t suffer in silence as she did is part of the reason she came out and shared her story – but the most important reason for Odiele was to speak up against intersex genital mutilation. In 2015, the United Nations condemned the “medically unnecessary surgeries and other invasive treatment of intersex babies and children” as a violation of human rights.
There are over thirty characteristic varieties that constitute being intersex, with surgical intervention attempting to reinforce rigid notions of gender; being ‘male’ or ‘female’. With 1 in 2000 babies born intersex, it’s hard not to see why such invasive surgery is problematic – especially when it’s often delivered, without real evidence, to the parents of intersex children on the basis it will prevent other potential medical and physiological problems associated with growing up intersex in, what was then, a rigidly gendered world. The lack of voice or agency that intersex children and young people have had is of particular concern. They are told to be quiet, as Hanne was, and led into surgery by well-meaning but misguided adults because “we are too young to decide for ourselves”. The attempt to give intersex young people a voice drives Odiele’s campaign.
Though Hanne says that, since coming out and speaking up about being intersex she has felt “very liberated and very authentic to myself”, it took her a while to be able to do so. “For me, I think I needed time for myself before I could speak about it.” But, having read stories on online forums of young girls that had gone through the same surgeries as her, she felt like it was time to do so, in order to put an end to the misinformation and ignorance that surrounds the condition.
As conversations about unpicking concepts of gender become more commonplace, it’s time that being intersex is properly addressed. For Hanne, gender is the “way that you feel: male, female, anywhere in between”. The progress being made with the ways in which we think of gender is, for her, amazing – but she says, she hopes that intersex people will get rights of their own.
Asked whether, as someone who has been in the fashion industry for a while now, she thinks that gender plays a massive role within the workings of industry, Hanne says she’s not so sure whether it does or not. “There are sections for women, there are sections for men, and androgyny is always in style too. I feel like fashion in itself is very daring; anybody can be anything.” She agrees that things aren’t black and white – not even slightly so. The time, then, to rethink rigid notions of gender is now, and intersex needs to be included in the discussion.
As a result of her new-found status as an intersex activist, Hanne has been named as one of Time’s 10 ‘Next Generation Leaders’, and included on the ‘Dazed 100’ definitive guide to those shaping youth culture. “It’s bizarre!” she exclaims, “I feel very honoured”. This recognition gives her the positive exposure that sharing her story deserves, I say; “Not bad, not bad!” she jokes, putting on a voice.
Despite the fact that Odiele has opened up about some very personal experiences, she’s nothing but chipper with a commendable matter-of-factness. Whilst she has long been admired for her personal style (“for me personally, I can try to blend in one day and I can do an avant-garde look the next”), instigating a much needed conversation can be added to a growing list of attributes.