“Orchids: My Intersex Adventure” airs tonight on Showtime

Showtime always celebrates Gay Pride month in June along with the LGBT community by airing special programming focusing on our issues and interests. This year, one of three documentaries the network has lined up concerns a topic infrequently explored: Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), better known as intersex.

Photos courtesy of Orchids

Orchids: My Intersex Adventure is Australian filmmaker Phoebe Hart‘s journey to understanding her own AIS while taking a road trip to meet other people with AIS (who sometimes refer to each other as “orchids”). Working with her sister Bonnie, who also has AIS, the film took six years to complete.

The Hart sisters were raised as girls and not told about their condition. Both have male chromosomes and had undescended testicles that were surgically removed at puberty (the girls were told only about hernia surgery that occurred at the same time). When Phoebe was 12 and wondered why she wasn’t menstruating, her mother told her she didn’t have a uterus and would never near children. Shortly after that, she tried to insert a tampon at a slumber party and discovered she had no place to insert it. But not until she was 17 did Phoebe learn that she had AIS.

Once Phoebe had the courage to find other people like herself, she knew that she wanted to document her experience so other intersex people would know they’re not alone.

Here’s the trailer.

Orchids is honest and often heartbreaking, but Hart shows no trace of self-pity. She confronts the issues of secrecy and lack of information by simply telling her story, and that style is what makes the film so effective.

The scenes with Phoebe and Bonnie’s mother are especially telling. Initially, Mrs. Hart refuses to be involved in the film, but eventually agrees to talk on camera. By doing so, she helps us — and her girls — understand that the Harts did what their doctors told them was best for their daughters. Mrs. Hart acknowledges her anger at doctors for not telling her she could pass AIS to her children, and we realize that her hesitance to be filmed stemmed not from shame about her daughters, but from guilt that she is genetically responsible for their condition.

At the heart of Orchids is a question familiar to all LGBT people: What is normal? As Phoebe says at one point, nothing in nature is “normal.” But society doesn’t know what to do with people who don’t fit in to a traditional gender category. The medical profession adheres to tradition by altering children’s bodies to be either male or female. But that takes away the rights of intersex individuals to control their own bodies. And it assumes that the biological gender markers present in most people somehow make anything else “wrong.”

The dilemma for parents is to know how best to raise their children in a way that protects them from ridicule or feeling shame for their differences, while encouraging them to find the gender expression that seems to “fit.” But unless parents are adequately informed about AIS, their decisions will not be.

Only through understanding and knowledge will society revise its perspective of intersexuality — and films like Orchids are an important part of the process.

Orchids: My Intersex Adventure has its U.S. premiere at 7 p.m. ET Thursday night on Showtime and will air throughout the month. It’s also available On Demand and on DVD via the Orchids website.

I haven’t been able to quit thinking about the film since I watched it this week. I’m looking forward to seeing what you have to say about it.