How a Top Model Also Became an Intersex Activist

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One of the models starring in Alexander Wang’s show on Saturday on West 146th Street — a model who, with her I-dare-you blue-eyed stare and power stomp, is one of the most familiar faces on the runway — recently took on a new daytime gig. Not actress. Not brand ambassador.

Intersex advocate.

Hanne Gaby Odiele, a favorite of Mr. Wang who has appeared in his label’s campaigns and is regularly booked for Chanel, Givenchy, Prada and more, revealed that she is intersex in late January through her Instagram account and articles in USA Today and Vogue magazine.

Though she has been a highly successful model since 2005, it took her over 10 years to decide to tell her story. When she did, the announcement was the pinnacle of a plan almost a year in the making.

“Hanne is making people aware of intersex, in a way that’s like what Caitlyn Jenner did for the trans movement,” said Elizabeth Reis, author of “Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex.”

Especially, said Susannah Temko, a youth advocate for InterACT Advocates for Intersex Youth, a nonprofit organization that Ms. Odiele teamed up with for future advocacy work, given her job. “To have a supermodel, someone who in Western society is held up as the pinnacle of feminine beauty, to have that person be intersex is incredibly powerful,” Ms. Temko said.

“It’s something you’re told to be quiet about,” Ms. Odiele said of being intersex, a term that covers dozens of variations in genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns that don’t fit into a binary conception of male or female.

While living in Belgium, where she was born, Ms. Odiele underwent two operations that doctors said were needed for her condition: One when she was just 10 and had her internal testes removed, and another when she had vaginal reconstructive surgery at 18.

In Ms. Odiele’s eyes, the real problem with being intersex is not being intersex. Rather, it’s the operations, which are usually done on children without their consent and have side effects that include infertility, incontinence and loss of sexual sensation.

Though it’s hard to say how many people are born with intersex traits, Brown University researchers have estimated that about one or two in 2,000 infants have surgery to alter their genitals.

Beyond the physical side effects, Ms. Odiele and InterACT argue that the operations can cause immeasurable emotional trauma.

“It’s not just surgery they’re experiencing,” said Kimberly Zieselman, the executive director of InterACT. “It’s also the process of medical treatment in general, the repeated genital exams. And the whole issue of secrecy and shame. There’s this whole concept of, ‘You’re a freak, and it’s shameful,’ and that’s just imposed on you.” There is also the risk that the sex a child is cosmetically assigned will not match the gender with which the child identifies later on.

Intersex advocates have been fighting to have parents hold off on operations for about two decades. The United Nations has declared them a violation of human rights, and more than a decade ago, 50 experts signed a statement urging doctors to discourage parents from rushing intersex children into surgery.

“If there are no surgeries, there’s no issue,” Ms. Odiele said. “It’s not that bad to be intersex. It’s this little detail of me. It’s not really who I am.”

After her announcement, Ms. Odiele was overwhelmed by messages from supporters, parents, children who know they are intersex and even medical professionals, thanking her for an insider’s view of something many only know through textbooks.

“When we look back in history, we will consider it a tipping moment for the movement,” Ms. Zieselman said, adding: “We took our time with it. We wanted to make sure Hanne felt ready to do it emotionally.”

Ms. Temko discovered that she was intersex at 15 and went through a period of depression after. “I wonder what it would have been like to be a teenager and to have someone like Hanne as an advocate,” she said. “I had never heard of intersex, until I found out I was intersex. And she’s probably the most high-profile intersex person in the world right now.”

Indeed, Ms. Odiele’s decision to tell her story seems only to have increased her success in the fashion world.

She recently appeared on the first cover of Belgian Vogue, though she has also accepted that her new high-profile role — that of being the face of a population — will essentially be a second job.

“It’s been an intense week,” she said days after her announcement. “Very good, very beautiful week. A lot of emotions, mostly good emotions. But very tiring, too. That’s what I wanted, that’s what I got.”

Now she’s taking her message down the runways with her.