What I Wish I Knew: Menstruation and Gender Dysphoria
My name’s Jess (they/them) and I am a Southeast Asian, queer, trans/non-binary teacher. Right now, I am finishing my Masters in Adult Education and Community Development at the University of Toronto.
When I’m not smashing the racist patriarchy through reading, writing, teaching, and advocacy, you can catch me making pour over coffee, eating vegan donuts, woodworking, and/or lifting heavy stuff.
Menstruation has been difficult my whole life. It has been a constant point of contention in terms of its contribution to my gender dysphoria. So, before I dig deep into my struggles with menstruation, I want us to develop a common understanding of my experiences with gender dysphoria, coming out, what these things have meant to me, and how it’s manifested.
The most jovial way I can describe this is through a food analogy.
Imagine if we were told from birth that we can either be a coffee person or a tea person. Sometimes you put cream, milk, or sugar in your coffee or tea, but you’re only allowed one or the other. You cannot like both and nothing else exists.
So you look at your parents. They like tea. Their friends like tea. So you like tea too. Liking tea means you’ll be accepted. But something’s missing.
One day, you’re walking on a random side street and suddenly smell something different. You’re not used to this but the smell envelopes and reaches every crevice in your body. It fills you with a different sense of joy— it’s not better. Just different. And it’s nice.
You turn the corner and you see a group of people making coffee. You want to approach them and try it, but you know you’re not allowed. You can’t possibly like coffee, because then you’d be a coffee person. You can’t be both.
So you go about the rest of your day. Tea is served with dinner but you can’t stop thinking about that haunting aroma you experienced earlier that day. Your family asks you what’s wrong. You’re confused, but don’t want to start anything. After all it could be nothing. So you tell them, “nothing”.
Weeks, months, years pass. But you don’t ever forget about coffee. You bump into coffee folks on the occasional, but it doesn’t ever cross your mind that it’s cool for you to try it.
But then, one day, you see people on TV who love both.
Then you see lattes. Suddenly, there’s tea lemonades everywhere. The next year you start learning about Frappuccinos! Inevitably, you start asking: “What the heck is going on???” So you want to try them. But, you don’t, because then what would people think? Say?
One day, you move out. In your new community, you notice people around you are openly drinking both coffee and tea. Eventually you gain the courage to try your first coffee. It is sensational. Magical. You’ve never experienced such flavours before! You didn’t even know if you had a palette for it! Officially, you love both, and no one here is mad at you.
Jess, drinking coffee, in Knix Swim
You visit your parents a few months later. Over the weekend, you continue to reach for the tea. It’s enjoyable- but if only your family knew the possibilities. You don’t broach the subject. You like tea, and talking about other drinks would just cause a problem. So you just don’t bring it up. It’s easier this way.
But of course, what I experienced was not quite like this.
While I could draft countless analogies and metaphors for you, there are ultimately limits to the English language. In the same way the presence and majesty of a mountain can’t be described to someone who’s never seen or been near one, the pain and depths of dysphoria and coming out cannot be accurately described. You can do your best to use big words and even pictures to complement it, but it’s never the same.
But, I digress. This isn’t just a preference or a choice between coffee or tea.
This is about not being able to live authentically.
This is about being statistically more likely to be murdered.
This is about knowing the statistics on transgenderism and its relationship to homelessness.
This is about knowing that there’s very little research on how to take care of elderly trans people, and even less research on how to care for those who are also racialized.
This was about knowing that who I am is not equally valued in this world, and that I will never have full access to the full spectrum of humanity.
This is about being constantly dehumanized and belittled for existing.
This is about prioritizing others’ comfort over my humanity.
So, how does this relate back to menstruation?
For a long time, I used a menstrual cup to cope. Because menstruation was such a trigger for dysphoria, sensibly, I worked hard to never think about it. With the menstrual cup, I could clean and use it in the morning, go 12 hours, come home, empty, and restart the cycle until the cycle was over. Basically, I would minimize the number of times I had to interact with menstruation, as much as possible.
But as much as this worked for me, I dreaded it. Sometimes it would leak at work. Over time, it would start to smell funny, despite boiling it 4 times a cycle. I tried to get rid of my period with the hormonal IUD. To my chagrin, it’s never fully gone away. Some months it’s just light spotting. Other months it’s definitely heavier, and definitely an ongoing, recurring source of dysphoria.
Discovering Leakproof Underwear was a transformative experience. During the lighter periods, I was able to stave off the dysphoria and anxiety. I stopped having to use the menstrual cup, which made things even better. 8 out of 12 months of the year, I was free from dysphoria. Leakproof Underwear freed up that cognitive load so that I could do things like my job and my Masters. However, there were some cycles that would be surprisingly heavy, and that Leakproof were unfortunately, not enough.
But, what I LOVED about the new Super Leakproof was how entirely forgettable my period became. I threw on the Super Leakproof in the morning, would go about my day, then change everything at night before I hit the shower, threw on another pair, and slept. No overnight leaks. No more having to choose between breakfast and showering.
Having gender neutral period products like Leakproof are important,
but first, I want to make sure this is clear: we can’t discuss gender without discussing race. Not only do period products need to be gender neutral, but they also need to be marketed in a way that amplifies melanated, intersectional voices.
As a racialized trans person, I learned early on that my various identities were threatening to the dominant culture (read: the White, cisheteropatriarchal, colonialist construct). Only one part of me was allowed to be different so that I could be palatable to the community. I know now that I really shouldn’t be suppressing myself to make myself likeable and palatable. As the old adage goes, those who mind, don’t matter, and those who matter, don’t mind.
When products are marketed for their function rather than their arbitrarily associated gender and race, you stop reinforcing the idea that everyone needs to look and be a certain way. Functional undergarments are meant to make you feel supported. Some people with vaginas aren’t women. And frankly, not everyone with a vagina menstruates. Intersex folks exist. I’m sure there are plenty of transwomen who would love a pair of Leakproof underwear, but aren’t sure about whether or not it’s for them.
According to Sam Reidel from The Establishment, trans people have historically been met with violent opposition when discussing their needs. Non-gendered, racially diverse menstrual products normalize our bodies and existence, and work to remove the additional stigma associated with menstruation.
When we shamelessly market and publicize the diversity of humanity, traditionally invisibilized, underserved, and marginalized— people can start to see themselves represented, important, and loved.
Through this all, I love how strong my body and mind have become.
For a long time I feared coming out. I thought I would be ostracized and isolated. I thought my friends and family would leave me.
But, as is quoted in The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho—“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself, and that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams”. My fear of ostracization and rejection kept me from living my life authentically. I reached 25 and realized I didn’t even know who I was. I’d spent so long cultivating this lie of a feminine identity to everyone around me.
As is true with all lies, they eventually unravel. 25 was a good year. When I approached 26, I cut my gorgeous, long hair. I went through my closet and created a donation basket full of my womanly costumes. I threw out my expired makeup— makeup that I kept in my drawers to help me keep lying to myself.
Coming out was liberating. Those who truly knew me, didn’t care and saw it coming. Work respected me for me, and even worked through the transition with me. I had a handful of family members who felt blindsided and betrayed by my true identity, and didn’t talk to me for a while.
Truthfully, Paulo Coelho’s quote resonated with me in these moments. While their rejection was truly painful, my fear of it was definitely worse than what it really was. The joy I experience as an openly trans, non-binary Southeast Asian person will always supersede those moments.