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Dispelling Misconceptions Of What It Means To Be Intersex

04/27/2017 03:22 EDT | Updated 04/28/2017 11:27 EDT

By Jerry Diakiw with Mikela Jay

Back in the 1970s as a vice-principal of a local high school, a grade nine student registered as "male" informed me he was now "female." The gender spectrum at that time was largely an official mystery. She, requested the use of the girl's washroom and I made arrangements to have her use the female staff washroom. As a grade nine student, Mikela Jay was subjected to relentless bullying and verbal slurs. We tried to protect her as best we could but she dropped out as early as she could at the age of 15. She was such a courageous and talented girl.

Before she dropped out I gave her a copy of a Playboy magazine with an impressive article summarizing all the varied radical (at the time) medical interventions being employed with individuals wishing to clarify their gender/sexual identity physiologically. I remember feeling embarrassed and unprofessional handing a 15-year-old girl this magazine and suggesting she and her parents read it to see if there was anything being reported that would help her. (It is amazing to think that at that time it was not totally inappropriate for a professional male to have a Playboy for the "excellent articles!")

For a decade or so, I followed Mikela's remarkable career as an international model and as an actress.(She was a lanky, stunning beauty!)

I recently reconnected with her and discovered more of her recent achievements. She explained: "I eventually connected with a specialist in ambiguous women's reproduction issues & discovered I was in fact born 'Intersex,' as I had always tried to articulate, though no one at the time knew much if anything about it."


Intersex! I was astounded at my ignorance. The list of names on the sexuality spectrum has grown along with my understanding, from the differences between transgender and transexual, and the meaning of two-spirited. Intersex was a new term for me, and I sought more understanding.

I referred to her medical change as transgender, erroneously. She is annoyed by people constantly incorrectly naming her condition.

As she responded to me:

"I didn't have 'sex change surgery', I was not 'a boy' -- I was born 'intersex' and had 'corrective surgery' for a different condition... Which is NOT the same as transgendered. It may seem petty to most people, but the difference is vast and a very different process than the one you may relate to, regarding the article you gave me as a teen. I have spent my entire life having to clarify & educate people about the differences. Those were the most challenging years of my life, so I am not prepared to have anyone misrepresent my truth based on limited knowing. I hope you understand that I am not berating you! After a lifetime of everyone getting it 'wrong', I can't afford to have it happen again now, especially with all of the great things I have happening in my life."

Hanne Gaby Odiele, a Belgian runway model has come out recently as intersex. She has made public in her video the unnecessary "traumatising surgeries" that intersex children are still subjected to. In this new video she has described a difficult life as an intersex child growing up in rural Belgium. "Most people don't know we exist," she said.

hanne gaby odiele

Model Hanne Gaby Odiele poses for a portrait in New York, U.S., Feb. 7, 2017. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

"Odiele was born with androgen insensitivity syndrome, which means she is genetically male (so has XY chromosomes), neither uterus nor ovaries, and internal testes... However her body is resistant to male hormones and she appeared like any other baby girl -- her parents thought they had a daughter."

Hannah Gaby Odiele noted in her coming out video that nearly two per cent of children are born intersex, roughly the same percentage that are born redheads.

She stated, " My identity is female and the energy that I carry myself is mostly female. Energy. That's how I think I see gender. As, like, an energy level almost."

She elaborated:

"But again, it's like, I will never know how it is to bear a child, never know how to have a period or to talk about many of the things that females think, or think is important to them. I'm like, 'I don't really get that,' but then I don't pee standing up either. Like, I've never wanted to be a man."

Mikela too is intersex, but no two intersex are alike. But she too has had a remarkable life. Now 51, she has become a successful documentarian, song writer, and performer. What a courageous inspiration she is! She led me through my growing understanding of the trials of children born intersex. Like a gifted teacher she led me carefully step by step, including this link:

"The term 'intersex' refers to atypical and internal and/or external anatomical sexual characteristics, where features usually regarded as male or female may be mixed to some degree." (Wikipedia) I learned it is a naturally occurring variation in the human spectrum and is not considered a medical condition. It is different from transsexuality, where a person's sex is evident, but feels as if he or she belongs to the other sex. Intersex individuals are often prepared to undergo a medical intervention to alter their natural sex.

Mikela went on to say:

"It is extremely common for people that are 'allies' to the LBGTQ community to want to help, though sometimes it can backfire (I have far too many experiences to know this) as well as hearing about it from others my whole life. Intersex children are in a very challenging place - no one knows how to deal with them and getting categorized incorrectly is devastating."

Is intersex the same as hermaphrodite, I wondered? NO, the mythological term hermaphrodite means a person is both fully male and fully female, a physiologic impossibility.

Mikela is soon to appear in two features, in two festivals on two continents this month, with a new six song EP coming out soon and a string of documentary, dance and TV projects to fill an active schedule. After all she has undergone she is bursting into flower.

What an inspiration!

Jerry Diakiw lives in Markham, ON. Mikela Jay lives in Montreal

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