The model and activist joined hundreds of activists who are demanding the end of non-consensual surgery on intersex youth
This weekend (October 27), outside a hospital on New York City’s Upper East Side, 250 activists gathered in the street to campaign for the rights of intersex people – those born with a biology that doesn’t totally match up to what we think of as ‘male’ or ‘female’. Specifically, they were protesting against the surgeries that are performed on intersex youth, babies who are born with atypical sex characteristics that doctors and parents believe need to be “fixed”. Procedures include clitoral reduction, vaginoplasty or removal of functional testes, and often, the children whom these are inflicted upon only find out later in life that it happened at all, far too late for them to make the choice for themselves.
Among the crowd at the protest was Belgian supermodel Hanne Gaby Odiele, who has experienced this trauma herself. Alongside a career that’s seen her grace the cover of Vogue, feature in Dazed and star in campaigns for Balenciaga, Mulberry, and DKNY Jeans, Hanne has channeled her experience as an intersex person into her activism, carving out a position as one of the most vocal and important intersex campaigners living today. In light of the protest at the weekend, and with Trump’s recent memo proposing the reclassification of sex in America as “based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth” in mind, we spoke to Hanne about how we can all better understand and support intersex rights.
How was the march on Saturday? What was the atmosphere like?
Hanne Gaby Odiele: Saturday was amazing! It was raining and the weather wasn’t great, but 250 people showed up from the intersex community, the trans community, the queer community and others. It was really beautiful, I felt many emotions. I was just happy that everyone came and supported us, but as we were speaking to one another on the street, it was clear we were all still reliving some traumas.
We marched to the Presbyterian University Hospital where Dr Dix Poppas works, because he is an important figure in the medicine world who still teaches and practices intersex genital surgery. But these surgeries are still happening all over the world – this is not just an American problem.
Can you tell me more about the surgeries, and why you are campaigning against them?
Hanne Gaby Odiele: These are irreversible surgeries that have huge complications for intersex people for the rest of their lives. People should be able to decide for themselves if they do or don’t want surgery, at an age that is appropriate. Treatment in general for intersex people needs to change, both surgery and hormones.
What are some of the effects?
Hanne Gaby Odiele: Infertility, early menopause – I had menopause when I was like eight-years-old – loss of sensitivity in your genitalia, incontinence, and bone density can go down. Then there is psychological trauma: our bodies are seen as a disorder, we don't feel comfortable from the moment we are born because we are touched, looked at... it alienates you from your body, even though you have a healthy body. The surgeries also are irreversible – so you might have had surgery and they might have misgendered you, then you have gender dysphoria. It all creates a distrust between yourself and the medical community, and even your family.
Why your family?
Hanne Gaby Odiele: Sometimes doctors use scare tactics to make those surgeries happen quicker; they tell your family you might get cancer, that nobody will love you. Parents think it’s an immediate thing that you get the surgeries, but you’re born in a healthy body.
In 2017 you decided to start talking about being intersex publicly. What was going on at that time?
Hanne Gaby Odiele: For me it was very important. Trump just got elected, and I was finally ready to talk about it. It took me over 12 years. It was a big relief once I did it, a huge relief, because there were barely any bad comments from anybody. People understand once you explain but there’s so much stigma and trauma still for many intersex people so it’s difficult to come forward, especially since we don’t have much representation.
What’s been the best and worst thing about coming out?
Hanne Gaby Odiele: In California they agreed that intersex surgeries are against human rights. It’s not a law, but it’s a good step forward. This year, new intersex activists have stepped up – from some, I heard that I was the inspiration for their coming out, which is so nice to hear.
The hardest part was the recent memo by Donald Trump where he said sex will be decided by birth. It was directed towards trans and GNC people but it also hurt a lot of intersex people too. For intersex people that doesn’t make any sense – it’s a slap in the face. The very definition of intersex proves this memo is bullshit.
“We all have to protect each other because the binary world is a lie. We need people to show up because it’s still so unknown to be intersex, our community is very young”
Can you explain why?
Hanne Gaby Odiele: The definition of intersex is when you’re born with sex characteristics that don’t fit the typical definition of male or female, it can be because of chromosomes, hormones, or genitalia, there are even chromosomal patterns that are not XY or XX. The memo claimed that you are what’s between your legs, that this defines if you’re male or female. But for intersex people what’s between your legs is not necessarily the truth of your gender. Then Trump proposed genetic testing; for intersex people it doesn’t make any sense because, for instance, you could be born with a vagina but have XY chromosomes. If passed, it will make it so that surgeries will be happening more and more as parents of intersex children will feel that, otherwise, their kids won’t be protected.
You planned the march before, but how did hearing about this memo change things?
Hanne Gaby Odiele: We planned the march two months before, because October 26 is Intersex Awareness Day. It was something that was going to happen no matter what, and then the memo was a very important reminder about why people have to show up. I feel like it proved how we have to show up for intersex people because it’s all connected: the trans community, queer community, and even women, we all have to protect each other because the binary world is a lie. We need people to show up because it’s still so unknown to be intersex, our community is very young. The more people that get involved, the more we get attention. It’s hard to make noise because we’re always told to not talk about it, because it’s a very medicalised thing, and there’s so much shame and secrecy.
Who is talking about it? Who are some good intersex role models?
Hanne Gaby Odiele: Pidgeon Pagonis from the Intersex Justice Project, and Sean Saifa Wall from IJP as well. Emily Quinn is another activist. There have been some really good activists, and more and more are coming. To find them I would go to interACT and also @intersexjusticeproject.
What do you hope comes out of the march – short term and long term?
Hanne Gaby Odiele: I hope we can finally see the end of intersex surgeries, it’s a human right – Amnesty International, the United Nations and many other human rights groups have called these surgeries human torture. It needs to stop. Long term, I hope that more people with intersex traits come forward. I hope that intersex people can live freely. Being intersex is not bad, it’s what happens to intersex people that is bad: the stigma, the taboo, the surgeries. Being intersex itself is fucking awesome.
To find out more about how you can support the rights of intersex people, check out the Intersex Justice Project.