Women who menstruate have been shamed for their monthly cycle since the dawn of time. The language around periods has not changed much since the first mentions of a woman’s shame in the Bible: “Whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her during that time will be unclean until evening. Anything on which the woman lies or sits during the time of her period will be unclean” (Leviticus 15:19-20). Even now, most of the ads for menstruation products are centered around avoiding embarrassing leaks and hiding your shameful tampon up your sleeve when you head to the restroom.
The evolution of how we talk about periods
This form of shame-based advertising is harmful to the narrative of women’s reproductive health. Thankfully, many brands are steering away from this cultural norm and emphasizing that periods are nothing to be ashamed of.
But there’s another problem with how the language around menstruation has stagnated. While gender and sexuality are finally evolving at a decent pace, liberation centering on menstruation is fraught with cissexism, or discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming people. People who are AFAB (assigned-female-at-birth) tend to be the ones who deal with menstruation. Many of those people identify as cisgender women but there are also many who do not. The language around transgender identity is finally shifting into the public eye, and transgender men, as well as non-binary people, are speaking out about their experiences with menstruation. Thirty-six percent of non-binary people struggle to seek medical care, especially for intimate health like gynecological issues, due to the rampant gender essentialism in the medical industry.
The challenge in seeking medical care as a nonbinary person
Frequently, the language around medical care is focused on male/female, man/woman, and other binaries that limit a non-binary person’s ability to safely and clearly communicate their medical needs with their doctor. There are movements to educate medical professionals on how best to care for transgender and nonbinary patients but those movements are still in their infancy when they exist at all.
A large factor in the limited options for LGBTQ folks and their health is that there is limited data on why LGBTQ communities face larger chances of being uninsured, bigoted doctors, and trauma with medical care, among other issues. When transgender and nonbinary people do manage to find doctors that make them feel safe, heard, and cared for, it is often only after exhausting and often disheartening research and rejection from ignorant doctors before finding the right one.
Kae Wheeler, a nonbinary person, described their hunt for an inclusive gynecologist as ‘extensive.’ “I vet them out to see if they have dealt with the queer/trans community before I make an appointment. If I don’t like them, I check out another until I find one I am comfortable with and willing to make my primary ob-gyn. I make sure that doctor knows my history, and about my partner. I need them to be sensitive to my needs as a trans/GNC (transgender/gender-nonconforming) person.”
The danger in exclusive language
This lack of trans-inclusive language is not only harmful medically, but it is also harmful socially and on a much more personal, emotional level within transgender communities. Nathan James, a transgender man who very recently came out and has not yet begun his desired medical transition, said that, “the way people talk about menstruation makes me feel as if my body isn’t good enough for what I feel I am. When talking about menstruation, people often equate womanhood and being a lady with periods. This, of course, makes me incredibly dysphoric. It makes me hate my body even more than I already unfortunately do. I feel like I’m not man enough, and that my body is just that of a girl’s. It contributes greatly to my depression, dysphoria, and self-hatred.”
It is nearly impossible to find ads, media, or awareness for periods that are gender-neutral. Most, if not all, of pop culture’s discourse around menstruation focuses on terms like “womanhood,” “feminine hygiene,” and “tough like a girl.” This language is a fantastic shift from the shameful, embarrassing, and gross language employed in historical conversations about menstruation. But we can do more. We can shift some of our language to include LGBTQ folks who menstruate, which dramatically decreases their chances of contracting STDs, suffering from untreated symptoms of reproductive health issues, and makes it more likely that they will seek help for their health issues.
Asherton, a nonbinary person who deals frequently with issues surrounding their period, admitted that they use menstrual cups because of their reusable qualities and cost-effectiveness, as well as the fact that “there’s a lot of cissexist language that surrounds menstrual products and they’re usually so heavily gendered that buying a box of tampons can be exhausting…the language around menstruation infinitely frustrates me because of the way it seems to inherently equate menstruation with femininity, and the first gender identification I can remember I felt was just ‘not-girl.’”
A shifting narrative
While many people in the LGBTQ community find great support from other LGBTQ people, it can very quickly become exhausting when all the messages surrounding transgender identities, gender-nonconforming identities, and nonbinary identities are primarily mocking, resentful, or outright bigoted. When companies that sell menstruation products diversify their language to include transgender and nonbinary people who menstruate, they often have great success and gain a previously ignored market.
This shift within feminist menstruation companies comes almost entirely because of the tireless activism that transgender and nonbinary activists work hard to vocalize. The more that transgender men and nonbinary assigned-female-at-birth people speak up about their experience being shut out from society’s discussion of menstruation, the greater the chances that their voices are heard and the less other people just like them will feel isolated from the narrative.
Boys Who Bleed, Trans Men With Periods
Collin Quinlan, a Houston, TX transgender man, spoke on his issues with gender dysphoria and how those feelings are complicated by the periods he still gets. “I experience dysphoria every day, from just having to put on a binder, put in my packer, put my legal name down on documents. It’s a painful reminder that my body isn’t right. I often look in a mirror and think about how much I hate the body I have. I also try to find [tampons] that have a quiet wrapper, because hearing a guy [unwrap a tampon] in a stall is not only awkward but terrifying. What if someone that hears me is a violent transphobe?”
He’s not alone in his issues with dysphoria and feeling isolated and afraid of being targeted due to the language around menstruation. When asked about why gender-neutral language was important to her, Atlanta local Mickey Lampton said a language shift was desperately needed “so that non-women who menstruate can access the information and care they need without being outed, having their dysphoria worsened, or facing violence…to make it all around safer for trans people to access medical care… to help rid medical science of inaccurate information coming from old prejudices, that holds it back from saving and improving lives.”
Changing language, building community
Lives could be saved with a little bit of extra effort on more gender-inclusive, transgender-friendly, and queer-inclusive language when it comes to periods. Whether that shift comes from medical professionals, companies, communities, or political movements, there are countless people who are isolated from today’s dialogue around menstruation but still experience menstruation themselves. Boys (and nonbinary bois) who bleed deserve love, support, and to be included in the conversation. The worst thing that could come of this inclusion is that everyone who bleeds will gain new community members, new tips and tricks on how to alleviate cramps, and even more solidarity that, yes, periods suck. After all, the larger a community, the stronger it becomes.
The author would like to thank the following people who she interviewed and spoke with to garner a more three-dimensional view on this issue: Kae Wheeler, Asherton, Nathan James, Baphomet Nayer, Alex Írisardóttir, Levi Fisher, Collin Quinlan, Kendra Callaway, Kae White, Mickey Lampton.