The word ‘intersex’ has buzzed the media this week after Belgian supermodel, Hanne Gaby Odiele revealed that she has the sexual condition.
The 29-year-old model is one of the first high-profile people to speak out about what it is like to be intersex. Odiele says revealing her sexual identity was an important step in helping to reduce the stigma surrounding this rare, yet very real healthy sexual condition.
Odiele was born with undescended testicles, no ovaries, and external genitals that resembled a vagina. At 10, she had her testicles surgically removed because she was told they may become a cancer risk. At 18, she had reconstructive surgery on her vagina.
According to Odiele, the operations were distressful, and she hopes that parents of intersex children will not pressure their children to undergo potentially unnecessary operations in order to help them fit in better.
Despite her early struggles, Odiele maintained a positive attitude. She recently got married and emphasized how important it is to continue to talk about these issues, both for herself and for others who might be feeling pressured to consider surgical options.
In an interview, Odiele said:
“I am proud to be intersex, but very angry that these surgeries are still happening.
“It’s very important to me in my life right now to break the taboo. At this point, in this day and age, it should be perfectly all right to talk about this.”
The first American recorded to come public with the condition is 55- year-old Sarah Kelly Keenan, who soared to international fame after obtaining a birth certificate with ‘intersex’ on it.
Keenan found out as an adult that she was born with male genes but a mix of male and female reproductive organs. She was considered a boy for the first three weeks of her life before she was issued a new birth certificate that read ‘female.’ But her birth certificate now depicts the sexual condition.
Keenan said she decided to go public with her story in part because she recognizes that misconceptions about intersex people can have life-altering and sometimes fatal consequences.
Activists said it’s a groundbreaking moment in the fight for intersex rights that could help pave the way for public officials, doctors and parents to better recognize and respect a marginalized group.
As Odiele and Keenan help to bring intersex status to the public eye, it’s important to understand what this sexual condition entails.
According to the Inter-sex Society of North America (ISNA), the condition is extremely rare and only occurs in about one in every 1,500 to 2,000 births. In addition, some intersex individuals are not even aware of their condition until they are older.
ISNA explains “intersex” is a term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive system or anatomy that doesn’t conform to a typically male or female body.
The United Nations further explains that being intersex relates to biological sex characteristics, not sexual orientation. An intersex person can identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or asexual. That person can also identify as male, female, both or neither.
Also, the intersex traits are not always visible at birth. For some people, their traits do not show up until puberty or later. Some adults learn that they are intersex when they try to have children and find out that they can’t, while others may never find out. Some intersex people have chromosomal variations that are never physically apparent.
According to the UK’s National Health Service, intersexuality is caused by a rare condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome, which leads to a child who is born genetically male, but who has the external genitals of a female, or somewhere in between male and female. However, not all cases of androgen insensitivity syndrome are the same.
For example, the NHS reports that in the case of complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, testosterone has no effect on sexual development and the genitals are completely female. However, in partial androgen insensitivity syndrome, testosterone has some effect and as a result the genitals are a mix between both male and female.
Experts estimate that between .05 percent and 1.7 percent of the population are born with the traits. The upper estimate is similar to the percentage of the population born with red hair.
In addition to Odiele and Keenan’s announcements, there have been other major improvements in the recognition and respect of intersex individuals, seeing that birth certificates reading intersex on the gender can now be issued. In addition, numerous countries across the world have stopped “normalization” surgeries on intersex children.