All photos by Brayden Olson

'Gender Is Just Limiting Society': The Model Fighting for Intersex Rights

Hanne Gaby Odiele spent her 20s walking the runway for Chanel and Givenchy. Now she's taking on a new challenge as the world's most high-profile intersex activist.

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May 3 2017, 1:45pm

All photos by Brayden Olson

On January 23, just days after Donald Trump's inauguration, Hanne Gaby Odiele announced the biggest news of her life: She came out as intersex in USA Today. The 29-year-old model is better known for walking the runway for Givenchy, Prada, and Chanel, but she is now taking on another role as one of the world's most—and some say only—high-profile intersex activist.

As defined by the youth advocacy group InterACT, "intersex" is an umbrella term refers to people born with one or more of a range of variations in sex characteristics that fall outside of traditional conceptions of male or female bodies. Hanne was born with androgen insensitivity syndrome, meaning that although she physically appears to be biologically female, she has XY chromosomes and was born with internal, undescended testes.

When I meet her in a restaurant a few blocks from her home in Williamsburg, Hanne is in black pants and an embellished black top beneath a cozy green coat. As soon I finish my coffee, she orders champagne and I do the same. We talk about fun stuff: her in-laws visiting for the weekend, her place that her and her husband just bought, their wedding, how they met, and what we both love about New York. But her coming out this year marked the biggest change of her life. "That whole week was a sleepless week," she recalls. "They [USA Today] called us [her and her husband] and said, 'At four in the morning, it's gonna come out.'"

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Intersex identity is often spoken about in scientific and biological terms, boiling down to medical terminology about chromosomes and genetic makeup. Hanne says this falls short of capturing what life as an intersex person is actually like. "It's not like some mythical woman with a penis and a vagina. It's more complicated than that. It's more personal than that. It's more real than that. More common, too, then people think."

When she was very young, Hanne fell ill and had to undergo routine blood work at the hospital. When doctors returned to speak to her parents, they congratulated them: "Your son is healthy," they said. Her parents were concerned that the results had been mixed up with a male patient, but doctors soon diagnosed their daughter as intersex.

Hanne: "My pre-teen years were very difficult for me."

At ten, she underwent surgery to remove her testes and was subsequently put on estrogen to kick off the most crucial, albeit awkward, years in anyone's life: puberty. "I was very confused. My pre-teen years were very difficult for me. It's already difficult for normal kids that age. My natural hormones literally got cut out, and then I was put on prescription drugs to fit in with the other children."

"It was like going through menopause and puberty at the same time," she remembers. "The summer after I had my testes taken out is when I figured out there was something wrong." Her doctors kept her in the dark about her condition; Hanne was only told that she would never have a period and would never bear children. They said that there was no one else like her. "I knew whenever I played with dolls my mom would cry. I knew I wouldn't be able to have kids. My parents were open about that very early on."

Her doctors were also unhelpful when it came to mitigating her own unease. When she went for medical checkups, students would routinely come in to gawp at her. "Every single time I would go to the doctor I had to go to various uncomfortable appointments," she remembers. "All of a sudden they would have a class coming into the room and they'd politely ask my parents to leave, put a sheet over my face, and one by one [started] looking at my private parts. I knew something was obviously different. It was difficult."

Sex is a bigger spectrum than just a penis and vagina. Know what I'm saying?

Imagine negotiating middle school, acne, puberty, dating while having an enormous question mark hanging over one of the most private parts of your life: your gender identity. "I was a little bit of wild child, like ADHD. It wasn't the best time of my life," she says. "I dated a few guys, but I was always kind of self destructive in that way. I never could have it to a certain point because I knew something was wrong and I never wanted to go there."

Thankfully, Hanne had a breakthrough when she turned 17. Browsing through a Dutch magazine, she stumbled across an article about young intersex women. "It described exactly what I have. No period. I won't be able to have kids. I thought, 'Oh my god, this looks just like me.'" After confronting her doctors, they confirmed her suspicions.

Hanne quickly connected with the writer of the article and went on to meet other intersex women at a conference in Holland. It was a life-changing experience, but it also preceded a brand new phase of her life: her career as an international model. She would spend her 20s walking in Fashion Week and being photographed for the cover of Vogue. "Literally a month after, I got this cover for modeling and I've never really been back to my country."

Hanne's experience of surgery prompted her to get involved with intersex rights.

But just after turning 18, she had vaginal reconstructive surgery—an operation that she'd been putting off for years. "It was surgery that I wasn't really informed [of] what the consequences could be. I told them many times I don't want to do it," she says. Her doctors insisted on it. Once it was over, she buried the idea of ever coming out. According to Hanne, the side effects of the surgery can include loss of sexual sensation and incontinence—and all for what is increasingly regarded as a procedure that forces the body to adhere to social norms.

"In most cases, the surgeries that have been done for us are just out of fear for non-binary bodies," Hanne says of intersex children and young people. "For parents and doctors, surgeries can be too harmful. If it's not consensual they shouldn't do it. If the person doesn't know enough, if the person is healthy, why do surgery?"

Ultimately, it was Hanne's experience with surgery that pushed her to connect with InterACT and speak up about her experience. "You don't need to fix anything that isn't broken," she says firmly. "[My last surgery] was basically done just out of non-binary fears. Sex is thought to be heterosexual, penis needs to fit in a vagina, but sex is a bigger spectrum than just a penis and vagina. Know what I'm saying? The trauma that can be done by non-consensual and irreversible surgeries is bigger than just being something that is normalized."

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Hanne offers a myriad of reasons—both personal and bigger than her—to explain why it felt like the right time to come out. "I think the LGBTQ community has paved the way a bit, especially in the last year. We've seen so many things come up for trans rights which is great. I'm all about it." But when it comes to intersex people, she adds, "I've always felt like our community has been a little left out. We're unrepresented."

Everything happening in her personal life made it feel right, too. She got married to her boyfriend of eight years, John Swiatek, last year and they've bought a house; she says she's about to turn 30, too, and feels like her career is in the right place. But the intersex community was still rife with horror stories of teens having dire side effects to surgeries that could be deemed largely cosmetic. "When a 13-year-old girl says she has sclerosis or loss of sensation, something isn't right," Hanne says. "They took her natural hormones. It's fucked up."

Her long term desire is to see gender norms die out, but she knows the challenges we're currently up against in this country. "You get put in a box from day you are born. 'You have a vagina, you're this,'" she parrots. "'You have a penis, you're this.' The in-betweens aren't even considered. You just get changed. It's not just a box you tick. It's a spectrum, and it should never limit you to be what you want to be. Gender is just limiting society as a whole."

I could not do anything further before I got this off my chest. I just want to live my authentic self.

Hanne speaks with an unstoppable energy—it's clear that she is proud to share her story and show her support for other intersex people. In a world where celebrities like Miley Cyrus openly ID as gender fluid or nonbinary, it's easy to forget that this is one coming out that is truly groundbreaking. "Hanne is the most prominent figure in the world to ever disclose that they are intersex. Not only that, but Hanne is taking it a step further by also advocating for intersex rights around the globe," InterACT executive director Kimberly Zieselman told Broadly. "The level of intersex visibility has never been higher, thanks to Hanne."

InterACT is working with Hanne to bring visibility to an underrepresented community and to highlight that surgery is not the only option for intersex people. "I'd like to see those surgeries disappear and to hopefully within 10 to 15 years to have happy, healthy intersex kids [who] can just be out and about, not needing to hide anymore, and they and their parents can speak openly about it," she says.

Hanne recognizes and owns her story, but also realizes that it couldn't have happened if a stroke of luck hadn't led her to flip through that Dutch magazine. It's been a long journey from there, but one that could never have ended any other way. "I could not do anything further before I got this off my chest," she says. "I just want to live my authentic self."

All photos by Brayden Olson.