Belgian model Hanne Gaby Odiele just made history as the first high-profile figure to reveal she is intersex, or born with genitals or chromosomes that do not fall under the traditional umbrellas of male or female. Odiele, who began her career at age 17 after being discovered at a music festival, and who has since worked with the likes of Alexander Wang (for whom she is a muse) and Marc Jacobs, spoke to USA Today about her intersex status and her desire to break the taboo. Odiele was born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, or AIS. AIS is when a woman has XY chromosomes that are more often found in men. Odiele also had undescended testes, which were removed when she was 10 years old. She was told that the undescended testes could lead to cancer and would prevent her from developing as a typical female girl, but she was too young to fully understand what that meant. “I knew at one point after the surgery I could not have kids," she told USA Today. "I was not having my period. I knew something was wrong with me." Later, at age 18, she underwent vaginal reconstructive surgery. “I am proud to be intersex,” she says. “But very angry that these surgeries are still happening.”
Odiele hopes that by speaking up, she can prevent these procedures, which are usually undergone without the consent of the child and without their full understanding. "There is a sense of betrayal when teens or young adults find out," Sue Stred, a professor of paediatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University, told USA Today. "Some individuals leave medical care altogether because they are so angry at what physicians did to them before they were the age of consent." As far as the likelihood of cancer is concerned, Stred says there is no “good, long-term data” that supports that assumption. "You can be whoever you want," Odiele says. "It doesn’t matter."