Belgian model Hanne Gaby Odiele is a rangy 178 centimetres tall. Mousey-blonde haired and milky-skinned, she has an impish, slightly androgynous look. As well as strutting catwalks, Odiele is helping break a taboo by recently declaring herself as intersex.
Odiele revealed that, due to being born with androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), an intersex variant, she was subject to irreversible and non-consensual surgeries as a child.
AIS is a condition in which a person who is genetically male (that is, who has one X and one Y chromosome) is resistant to androgens (male hormones). As a result, the person has some or all of the physical traits of a woman, but the genetic makeup of a man.
Now, Odiele has teamed up with youth intersex advocacy group interACT Advocates for Intersex Youth to spread the sex-neutral word. Her message: being intersex isn’t weird, and kids (and their parents) should feel comfortable with it.
Odiele also stressed that it was not for parents to decide whether to make their intersex child a ‘he’ or a ‘she’. It was for the individual to decide when they became an adult and could fully consent to have surgery, take hormones, or do nothing at all.
But what’s an educator to do with intersex children that form, on average, 2 per cent of any given population?
Dr Elizabeth Riley, a Sydney-based gender counsellor, thinks these children should be made to feel as average as possible.
Speaking with another of our titles, Education Review, last year, Riley said the creation of an accepting environment, with staff members who were educated in this area, was paramount if gender-diverse kids were to feel secure.
The government’s Safe Schools initiative was aimed at addressing this in a school context.
In addition, Riley said education facilities should learn about the child’s and the parents’ individual needs. For example, some may wish to keep the child’s gender identity private, whereas others may be more comfortable with openness.
She suggested that, when it came to attitudes towards gender diversity, it was other parents, not kids, who could be less understanding.
“What I notice is that the kids are usually fine,” she said. “It’s the parents of the other children who sometimes have questions.”
And it’s the outsider status of the gender diverse that can lead to grim outcomes. A 2016 study of intersex individuals in Australia, the first of its kind, found that 19 per cent of survey respondents had attempted suicide.
With statistics like this, understanding intersex conditions, which are as common as red hair, seems obligatory. Thanks to Odiele’s disclosure, the educational conversation is bound to continue.