What-It’s-Like-to-Have-a-Period-When-You-Don’t-Identify-as-‘Female’

What It’s Like to Have a Period as a Non-Binary Person: 'We Need to Stop Associating Periods With Womanhood'

Being born with a uterus doesn't automatically mean you're a woman.
By Caroline Colvin
March 23, 2021

When I first started menstruating, I figured all I'd have to worry about would be keeping track of predicted bleeding dates and how to expertly stick down a pad. I never could have guessed that my feelings toward my periods could become so heavy. But that's exactly what happened when I began menstruating as a trans and non-binary person.

One day after school, during the fall semester of sixth grade, I felt a little off. I went to the bathroom to pee and found specks of blood on the toilet paper in my hand. While I didn't feel any elation or disappointment that my period had come when it did, I do remember being nervous about sticking my head out of the bathroom door and ask my mom for a pad.

Young Caroline
Young Caroline.
| Credit: Caroline Colvin.

From both my family and media (see: the period scene in The Clique), I'd picked up the idea that my cycle was dirty, my pain was invalid. I should live in fear of my pad making a crinkling sound, as no one should ever know that I'm bleeding. And yes, bleeding is natural, but it's still something I should be ashamed of—hence all the visual and verbal euphemisms. For example, in TV commercials, who thought it was a great idea to pour blue liquid on a pad to show its efficacy?

Growing up is often depicted as a loss of innocence. The only innocence lost with my menarche was realizing how cruel and complicated the world could be. That scene in The Clique where the popular girls sabotage new-kid-on-the-block Claire by smearing red paint on the back of her white jeans—plunging Claire into social humiliation—was forever burned into my pubescent mind.

Prior to the tight-knit group of progressive friends I've cultivated in adulthood, the only safe space I had regarding periods was the all-girls Catholic school I attended as a middle-schooler. Christianity can often uphold "purity culture," which is the antithesis of open, honest communication about bodies labeled female and reproductive health.

But my warm, welcoming, Catholic school teachers never made menstruating kids feel bad about ducking out to the nurse for a pad or needing to sit out during P.E. because of cramps. I do say menstruating "kids" intentionally to honor myself and other alums who later came out as gender non-conforming, and to also honor the openly trans and genderqueer kids who are now embraced by the school—which I moved far away from for high school and college.

Menstruating while trans

During my adolescence and young adulthood, I tested the waters to see how other people reacted to periods, noting the shame and disgust they exhibited. So I started being frank about my periods around my cis male peers. It wasn't in the name of feminism; I was just sick of the sexist shame. However, my fourth-wave feminist irritation only lasted so long. My undeniable gender-queerness came to a fever pitch in 2019 and I came out that summer.

Caroline now
Caroline now.
| Credit: Caroline Colvin

By that point I'd been taking birth control pills for about six months. During the decade of menstruation leading up to my ob-gyn visit for the pill, my periods had become pretty debilitating. I was prescribed Levora, and while the physiological symptoms of my cycle eased once I went on it, a different kind of discomfort flared up. 

Navigating the period aisle

I became acutely aware of how transphobia compounds period stigma. This phenomenon is hard to ignore when retailers consistently label menstruation-related products "feminine hygiene" and "women's health care."

As a trans, non-binary person who doesn't fit the traditional labels of masculine or feminine, I feel overwhelmed by the cisnormative packaging. This was something I hadn't been aware of before I explored my trans identity. It's kind of like getting a new prescription for your glasses and you say to yourself, "Oh, wow. I didn't realize how differently I saw things before." 

How about we just label pads, tampons, and pain relief for periods "menstrual products" and call it a day? How about companies stop limiting themselves to saccharine sweet pinks or commercials that are all about girl power? In October 2019, menstrual product brand Always took the symbol for female off its packaging. This progressive move is one step closer to the kind of inclusion that'll make all menstruating people feel like they also deserve period care.

Yes, many women do bleed. But being born with a uterus doesn't automatically mean you're a woman. Plus, the association of "menstruating" with "womanhood" doesn't just erase the experiences of trans men, intersex people, and gender non-conforming folks. This association can also hurt cis women who have health issues and don't menstruate at all. Womanhood shouldn't hinge on biological functions. Womanhood should depend on how people self-identify. Full-stop.

I worry about the trans and non-binary individuals who feel comfortable using the men's bathroom, but face the dilemma of how to change their tampon discreetly. Because when you're assigned female at birth and identify as a woman, the crunch of a pad wrapper isn't just a possibility for embarrassment. It isn't the kind of liability that could result in transphobic harassment or even physical assault.

Getting your period when you have gender dysphoria

Many trans and non-binary people experience gender dysphoria, defined by the DSM-5 as as "the psychological and physical discomfort one has with the outward appearance of their sex and the internal experience of one's gender identity." Transmasculine people often experience severe dysphoria while menstruating. Gender dysphoria can look like increased irritability, anxiety, a depressed mood, fatigue, and an uptick in mood swings overall.

The lack of inclusion in American medicine can bar trans people from life-saving procedures like gender confirmation surgery, so realistically we're a long way from including hysterectomies on the list. But this procedure should be offered as a way to free trans, assigned-female-at-birth people from a monthly reminder that the world is slow in acknowledging their gender identity. Birth control can also be gender-affirming, as a less permanent way to reduce period symptoms. 

Something I've been thinking of a lot this year is how my transness affects my interactions with health care professionals. A trip to your primary care doctor, your therapist, or your ob-gyn is so much more complicated when you're not the gender you were assigned at birth. The steps to change my gender marker on my medical records are a headache and a half, and I dread having to correct my primary care doctors on my pronouns. I'll be frank: If I wanted to go on birth control because of gender dysphoria back when I was first coming out, I don't think I'd be able to stride coolly into my ob-gyn's office and be perfectly candid with her about my reasons. I imagine similar ob-gyn conversations in less-accepting areas would be painful for trans folks, if not dangerous.

I have some privilege in that I have access to health care, and I don't experience dysphoria often. My process of embracing my transness comes from gender euphoria, which means feeling affirmed and joyful about my gender identity. Not experiencing gender dysphoria doesn't make a person's transness any less valid. I don't know if I want to get top surgery. I don't think I want to get bottom surgery. But the way I've been played by my periods, best believe my uterus will be the first to go.

Why I practice self-love while menstruating

For me, self-love during my period means using unequivocal language. I call my period by its name. I call out blood when I see it. I'm candid when friends ask, "How are you?" and my cramps are really kicking my ass.

The second part of my period self-care as a non-binary person is allowing myself grace. I'm no longer afraid to ask my chosen family for help when I'm feeling like hot garbage. These days, when I slip into a hot bath with my phone on "do not disturb" and my favorite wellness podcasts turned up loud, I remind myself: I don't have to "power through." Period discomfort and fatigue are just as valid a reason to be out of commission as sinus pain, migraines, and a sprained ankle. (You know, when I was told to "man up" and face my pain head-on as a kid, I don't think this is what anyone meant.)

The third key component of my period self-care is tenderness. During my cycle, you can find me rubbing muscle relief balm into my cranky knees, bloated tummy, and tight lower back with devotion. Fourth is self-advocacy. To find the ones I liked best, I gave various period products a trial run—the same way I experimented with LGBTQ+ language and different pronouns to see what made me feel best in my daily life. Tampons never sat right with me. Silicone cups aren't so great. Absorbent underwear is the winner, as these tend to be comfy, hassle-free, and reliable. That period panties reduce waste is an added bonus.

You may read through my self-care list and think, "Awesome! Love that for you. But these things aren't trans-specific." I'd argue against that. Consider that it's a radical act for me to treat my (Black) trans body with such kindness during a much-shamed time of the month. Trans folks, do what you can.

Cis folks, it's time to step up to the plate. Challenge your family members, your co-workers, your peers, and yourself to use more gender-neutral language regarding periods. In fact, dare to talk more about periods in general—and be sure to use gender-neutral language to include all the trans, intersex, and non-binary people who menstruate, too.

Caroline Colvin is a non-binary Black journalist who covers sexual health and pleasure, sex tech, identity, and the arts. Along with being a Sex & Dating Staff Writer for Elite Daily, they have written for Bustle, INSIDER, and Shape.com. They love matcha, advocating for Black trans joy, and curating aesthetics.

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