Talking About Periods When You’re Trans Or Nonbinary

Photographed by Ruby Woodhouse
"There are a lot of good conversations about trans issues happening at the moment, but I think a lot of people don’t really think or talk about trans and nonbinary people getting periods," says Mia, who is from London and identifies as nonbinary. "On adverts it’s always cis femme women with long hair saying, 'Look – you can wear a short dress and be on your period!' but that’s not everyone’s experience. It’s not about trying to silence cis women in any way, it’s just about recognising that other people have periods too."
If you walk into a shop to pick up some sanitary pads or tampons, you may take for granted the way that these products look. Most packaging is as innocuous as possible; they could be tissues, or a packet of sweetener – nondescript in order to spare cis women like myself the embarrassment we’re often told we’re supposed to feel about menstruating. But for others, the ritual is extra complex; products are stored in a shop's "feminine hygiene" section and, despite being designed to go unnoticed, often the packaging can feel very gendered. This is something that a trans man or a nonbinary person might feel a little uneasy about picking up and taking to the counter. They may already be self-conscious about passing, worried about whether their preferred toilets will have a sanitary bin (men’s bathrooms usually don’t), or feel an uncomfortable sense of dysphoria around having a period to begin with.
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These are the type of experiences Mia was talking about when they claimed that there is still a nuanced conversation that needs to be had around trans and nonbinary people and periods. Personally, Mia tried to initiate this conversation last year, when they tweeted from @CissexismDaily – the account they run that aims to challenge everyday instances of cissexism and transphobia – about some free menstrual hygiene products given away with tampons. A pouch to keep your hygiene products in, Mia felt that the gift was distinctly aimed at cis femme women, and it made them feel uncomfortable.
Mia explains: "If you don't look like a traditional woman, just doing things like buying tampons or going into women’s toilets, even if it doesn’t lead to a specific case of discrimination or violence, can still give you a heightened sense of awareness; a fight or flight feeling comes. It puts you on edge because it’s drawing attention to the fact that you’re not a woman, and it makes you ready to be questioned about your gender."
Elijah, a trans man who is also from London, says he can empathise with Mia’s words. He was lucky in that his periods stopped after his first shot of testosterone (sometimes it can take years) but before this, when he was already presenting – or socially transitioning – as a man, he still had to go to the chemist and pick up sanitary products once a month. "If there was going to be an occasion when someone genders you for no reason, as soon as you have that product in your hands, that’s it. People think, 'Ah I know what you are now!' and I found it fucking awkward, obviously."
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Over the phone, Elijah explains that it was only after he stopped getting his periods that he started to realise, with hindsight, just how much dysphoria they caused him. We agree about how, if you don’t want a vagina, having blood come out of it is like a metaphor straight from a horror film: "It was not an area I let anything or anyone into physically or sexually, so to be bleeding from there once a month for a large proportion of your life was a surreal thought," he says, giving the discomfort of his first period as an example.
"I was 13, and I was already really struggling with puberty, stubbornly trying to not let things change. My mates were embracing makeup, boys, flirting but I couldn’t make peace with it. So when I got my period as well, I started to feel super uncomfortable physically. Every month, I felt really dirty and embarrassed by it. You know when people say, 'I’m on my period, it’s so annoying!' I never said that sort of stuff. I remember being in the bathrooms at school, and waiting until everyone left to change my pad. That sound of it ripping off your pants was a sound that I hated so, so much."
While the conversation around trans people and periods needs to go further in including those who experience extreme discomfort while buying sanitary products, or dysphoria around the period itself, there are of course trans people who don’t get periods, which can bring its own set of difficulties. Refinery29 writer Juno Roche, who identified as trans and now identifies as nonbinary, explains that they know trans women who find it hard to hear or talk about periods, because it’s something they haven’t experienced.
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Although Juno doesn’t feel this way – "I don’t feel it’s a conversation I can’t be involved in, even if it’s not something I’ve experienced" – they can see how the current climate might be reinforcing the feeling for trans women. Online, self-proclaimed feminists are using periods as a stick to beat trans women with, saying 'You’ll never understand what it’s like to be a woman because you’ll never have a period'. Juno finds this upsetting and unhelpful: "We get attacked, with people saying, 'Unless you have this set of things, you can’t be real' and I think that’s an issue. It’s odd that a small group of women are using the kind of essentialism they rallied and fought against to define womanhood. But also because there are many cis women who struggle with their periods, don’t have periods, or whose periods stop, for any number of reasons."
Juno explains that, online of late, they have seen trans women discussing how they have experienced the psychological or physiological symptoms of a period, whether it be due to their hormone cycle or psychosomatic, or because, as Juno processes it, trans women are forced into a constant position of having to root themselves in the biological. Whatever is causing it, Juno thinks these women’s experience is valid: "I wanted to be a mother and for a long time I felt guttural sadness at that not being able to happen. I think that if there are trans people who feel like they’re having symptoms then rather than scorning them we should collect evidence, honour people’s experiences. It’s like, 'Let’s not say pregnant men because it’s for a few people' but surely the point is we work towards being nicer and kinder to those in the minority?"
Elijah agrees, and adds that there might be positives for all of us when it comes to including more people in the conversation around periods. He explains that while he doesn’t bleed anymore, he still gets menstrual cramps, as well as hormone dips due to his testosterone, and that both these things have taught him to acknowledge the regular emotional downtime one might need. "I’ve come full circle from being like, 'Yay, my periods are gone!' to being like, 'Actually, this is part of my life because it’s all hormonal'. And if you don’t feel great, that's fine, just eat a bowl of pasta in bed and watch cartoons," he laughs. "Periods teach us to do self-care. We can all learn from that, even cis men, because we all have cycles in our moods, don’t we?"
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