To talk about periods as a ‘women’s issue’ makes things worse for everyone, writes a man who used to menstruate.
Most days I forget that I’m transgender. I hear “he” and my brain doesn’t really register it, it just feels normal. I respond if someone says my name, I’m not even thinking about how I used to have a different one. My trans status is non-existent until I’m reminded otherwise. Periods are just a distant memory for me now, as I haven’t had one since I started my transition a couple of years ago.
It’s just as easy to forget that a lot of my experiences aren’t all that universal either. Some subconscious part of my brain also forgets that not every adult man knows what it’s like to be a teenager getting their period for the first time.
On the first day of high school, I remember all the girls in my class were taken to a separate room for “the talk” about periods. It was an uncomfortable experience for me as a young closeted trans man, as was all the teasing that came from the male students for the next few days. But the thing that had the most resounding impact was how the teachers approached the topic. The message we received was that periods were: a) inappropriate to mention around men b) disgusting and embarrassing and c) something we shouldn’t inconvenience others with.
As someone who has lived “both sides of the coin” when it comes to gender, I cringe when I hear someone say something incorrect about periods, but I also know that not everyone has had the chance to understand. That being said, there are inexcusable examples. I once heard a doctor say during a presentation that “women are affected by menstruation for two days a month”. I had to question where he got his training – if anyone out there is actually having two-day periods, I’d have given an arm and a leg to trade places with them.
You really can’t blame the average person for having gaps in their knowledge. If you’ve never experienced a period, your only chance to learn is through someone, or somewhere, else. This is where education can really make a difference. For me, the separation between the boys and the girls during period education reinforced the “you are a woman, and this is why you are different from men” message. As a young person who was trying to make sense of who I was and how I felt about my gender identity, it was incredibly discouraging to hear.
But it wasn’t helpful for the boys who were left in the other room either. Periods affect the lives of billions of people around the world, for most of their life, sometimes having a huge impact on their quality of life. Some of those boys left in the other room have since grown up to be bosses, doctors, partners, parents and co-workers, all roles in society where a little understanding about periods could go a very long way.
During that doctor’s presentation where he declared that periods lasted only two days, I was sitting next to a woman whose endometriosis went undiagnosed for 40 years. Doctors never believed her when she went to them, and the people around her didn’t know otherwise. In the end she lost several internal organs, and continues to live in debilitating chronic pain. According to the Ministry of Health, about 120,000 people live with endometriosis in New Zealand. This is just one of the factors that can make periods more painful, difficult, or even dangerous.
That’s another layer of isolation that happens when you feel like you can’t talk about periods with anyone. I remember dealing with horrendous periods as a teenager and thinking that I was just being over-dramatic, that it wasn’t a big deal. Of course, at the time I also didn’t know about my undiagnosed autoimmune disorder or severe mental health condition. Sometimes I wonder if they would have gone undiagnosed for as long as they did, if I had just talked a little more about the way those two things manifested in my difficult periods.
Having some base knowledge about periods sounds like a small thing, but it can really make a difference. When it gets packaged like “a women’s issue”, not only does it create stigma, shame and division, it also reinforces the idea that men don’t need to know about it because it doesn’t concern them. In reality, it concerns everyone, regardless of the fact that not everyone who gets a period is a woman.
Going through a period when you’re not a woman is a bit like playing life on hard mode. In general, I do my best to avoid gendered public bathrooms, because I look out of place in either option I choose. But when you’re dealing with periods, you often can’t just “hold it till you get home”. You have to choose to either change your pad in the stall of a men’s public bathroom – the tenth circle of hell – or you can head into the women’s bathroom, fully aware that you don’t really look (or feel) like a woman enough to not get some weird looks.
A simple solution for that is gender-neutral bathrooms, but it’s extremely rare to have one handy when you need it. There’s also the added discomfort of having to buy things from the “feminine hygiene” section at the grocery store, the dilemma of deciding whether it’s worth the effort of bringing up your period if it means you have to explain everything else, and so much more. It’s a lot of small things, but they add up to create a lot of dread around that time of the month for a lot of queer folk out there.
But in the same way that small things add up to make things more difficult, small things can add up to make a positive difference too. I still remember how hard my periods were, and how much of a relief it was when someone took my issues seriously. So, even though I don’t have a period any more, I still try to do what I can for the people around me who do. I keep pads on hand, just in case anyone needs one urgently. I try to learn more about the different struggles that people can experience with their periods. For me, the hardest part is still just fighting through all that deeply embedded shame to be able to talk about it like a regular everyday topic.
Are periods the easiest thing to talk about? No. Is it going to make a difference if we talk about them a bit more? Definitely. If periods were just a neutral, normal and understood part of life, it would make things that much easier for people who live with them. And not just in the: “my wife has her period so I buy her chocolate and don’t disagree with her” kind of way. It’s not the kind of thing that can happen overnight, but with small steps and an openness to learning, it can make all the difference.