The act of menstruation is still very much viewed as a shared experience among women. It’s spoken about as ‘the woman’s curse’. However, what does this type of language mean for transgender individuals and how do they identify with this ‘female’ act? After all, many trans men menstruate and many trans women do not.
According to Louie Stafford, Trans Programme Coordinator at the LGBT Foundation in Manchester, these individuals are all too often made to feel ‘othered’ as a result. For many transgender men and other non-binary individuals (people who don’t fit within the binary of male and female), their menstruation can feel like a source of shame and make them feel further alienated from their bodies. Stafford has extensive experience working within the trans community, particularly in the field of youth work. ‘Puberty can be an especially difficult time,’ he explains. ‘For someone experiencing gender dysphoria this may further cement the idea that they’re growing up into the wrong body, which can be very distressing.’ A first period, perhaps more so than any other aspect of female puberty, is viewed to be a rite of passage and indeed ‘becoming a woman’, whether you like it or not.
Sanitary products: flowery & feminine
Often a trans man will continue to menstruate, even after they choose to transition. The lack of gender neutral sanitary products can then prove to be a problem. Menstrual health aisles more often than not look as flowery and feminine as a field of fresh daisies. Adverts promoting sanitary products more or less always depict cis women (naturally-born women whose psychological gender identity is also female). This is of course understandable in marketing terms due to the core demographic of their buyers. However, the diversity of those who use sanitary products isn’t yet being fully represented. That’s why Thinx, an American company that designs underwear for women, is now offering a line of gender-neutral shorts for trans men who menstruate.
For trans women, menstruation can be an even more complicated topic. A trans woman can be made to feel alienated for not menstruating, as if this somehow prevents her from identifying as a ‘real’ woman. There are still a number of people who believe that womanhood is something which is assigned to you at birth and recognisable through a fixed set of biological processes. This can lead to transgender women feeling uncomfortable or even alienated when conversing in female only spaces. After all, with menstruation affecting the large majority of women, it will inevitably crop up in conversation. No doubt many trans women are relieved to avoid the monthly discomfort, cramping and irritability. However, as a cultural symbol of femininity, menstruation is more or less universal.
This is smartly illustrated by a prank which fooled many. United Media Publishing ran a story about a new transgender tampon that would allow transgender women to enjoy the ‘beautiful and womanly occurrence of menstruation’. The language used here is satirical. However, society’s definition of what it means to be a woman is still disappointingly narrow; it usually boils down to rigid biological, and largely reproductive, traits. Although for many women menstruation is an important part of womanhood, this experience varies from woman to woman.
According to Stafford: ‘It is important not to make periods a defining factor of womanhood.’ Using transgender positive language when discussing menstruation is actually incredibly simple and something that we can all practise in our day-to-day lives. ‘This is not about watering down the message; it’s about being more inclusive,’ he explains. ‘As a society we need to make sure that trans voices are heard within period positive discussions. As individuals, we need to be mindful of how the language we use has the ability to exclude or include others and to understand the significance of the words that we use.’