Belgian model Hanne Gaby Odiele made headlines earlier this year when she came out as intersex in a video filmed for USA Today.
In a new interview with Out Magazine, the 29-year-old has spoken about her childhood in a small Belgian village, when she had no idea what the term intersex even meant.
It wasn’t until she was 17 that she discovered an article in a teen magazine about an intersex woman who was unable to have children.
“I showed the article to my doctor, and he said, ‘Yeah, this is you,’” she tells Out.
“I have XY chromosome insensitivity,” Odiele adds. “I was born with internal testicles that produce testosterone but my body converts it to estrogen.” She smiles, adding: “It’s crazy, right?”
The model spent much of her childhood undergoing surgeries on her genitals but doesn’t blame her parents for following the instructions of local doctors.
“Whatever the specialist is telling you, you’re going to believe it,” she says. “My parents understood a little but not all—they’d never spoken to anybody else, never had any contact with other parents in the same situation.”
“My mum especially felt very guilty about what happened, and takes it very personally, but this [Odiele’s coming out] has helped her, too. It was a different time, and it was not their fault.”
Just like her, many of the intersex people Odiele has met have had surgery to “normalise” their bodies. She says she hopes greater visibility and education will put an end to the “human rights violation”.
“There are so many complications that come with surgeries—they’re irreversible,” she says. “You have to be on hormone therapy your whole life, and that messes up a lot of things.”
Odiele says it was a relief to finally identify as intersex.
"I always felt like I was the only one like me, that I had this weird thing going on—having to go see the doctor for my genitals, thinking, What the hell is wrong with me?”
There’s nothing wrong with being a bit different,” she says.
“I just don’t understand why we need to fix something that’s not broken.”
Human Rights Watch released a groundbreaking report this week about the physical, emotional and psychological scars that are left when intersex children undergo unnecessary surgeries.
“The pressure to fit in and live a ‘normal’ life is real, but there is no evidence that surgery delivers on the promise of making that easier, and ample evidence that it risks causing irreversible lifelong harm,” says report author Kyle Knight.