Who Menstruates? People Menstruate.
Last summer, J.K. Rowling tweeted out an article that predicts the future of menstrual equality, health and hygiene in a post-COVID world. And while the article she posted is a must read (how do we prioritize menstruation and sanitary resources for everyone going forward?), the internet was abuzz for one reason. Rowling seemed to fixate on something in particular: that the author chose to title the article Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate.
Rowling outlined the problem in her Tweet: ‘People who menstruate. I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?’— doubling down on an often-thought (but incorrect) belief that only women get their periods. Still a little confused? That's okay! Read on to learn about who else gets their periods, and why it's important to use inclusive language when talking about menstruation.
The Myth: Only Women Get Periods
March 31 is International Trans Day of Visibility— a time dedicated to celebrating transgender people while recognizing the discrimination they continually face.
There's no better time to learn more about how our language regarding menstruation can evolve to be more inclusive for trans and gender non-conforming folks in our communities.
Here’s what a lot of us have been taught: that only women get their periods. Whether this was introduced in an elementary school sex-ed class, or perpetuated through depictions in media and marketing, periods are wildly considered to be a girl thing— a cultural experience that signifies womanhood.
But here’s the period golden rule, outlined by trans activist Kenny Ethan Jones in response to J.K. Rowling’s tweet:
Not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women.
Who else bleeds?
Gender isn’t actually a determining factor on whether someone gets a period. This is because gender and sex are two distinct aspects of our identity. “Biological” sex largely has to do with our sex organs. If a baby is born with a penis, they’re assigned male. If they’re born with a vulva, then the assigned sex is female. Sex, like gender, also operates on a spectrum. You can read more about it here.
If your gender identity doesn’t match what you were assigned at birth, you may identify as transgender or non-binary. For example, if you were born with a vagina but don’t identify with being a woman, you may choose to identify as a male. This means that there are people other than ciswomen (women whose gender identity matches their sex organs) who menstruate.
The only determining factor on whether someone gets a period? Having a uterus. And people who identify as male or non-binary can have uteruses! Because why? Let’s say it together: Gender and sex are different things. See, it's super easy.
Understanding that people menstruate is really crucial— it helps us to curb behaviours and language that make trans and non-binary people feel like their bodies and experiences are invalid or wrong. It's important to say that people menstruate, because it helps to destigmatize and demystify periods for all.
We’ve gotten better at talking about periods, but stigma around menstruation still very much exists. And this stigma is even greater for trans and non-binary folks (and even more-so for people of color). “A period in and of itself can be uncomfortable for any individual, and being transgender adds another emotional layer to that”, Kenny Ethan Jones explains.
An experience largely associated with womanhood, getting a period when you don’t identify as a woman can feel confusing, dysphoric and take a huge toll on one’s mental and physical health. Not to mention, it can be a huge safety concern.
For trans activist Cass Clemmer, it can be a terrifying experience:
"Aside from experiencing gender dysphoria and anxiety around the way my body changes during my cycle, I have to worry about which bathroom to use, whether or not me carrying a tampon or leaking could out me in an unsafe place, or being constantly misgendered because I couldn’t wear my tight binder that week. My story is absolutely not the universal trans and non-binary experience, but I do hope people hear my story and realize how difficult menstruating while trans can be when it comes to feeling safe and affirmed in our identities".
Changing the Conversation
Activists and educators like Cass work hard to develop tools that educate people about sexual and reproductive health. But we can help too.
Here are things we can do in our day-to-day that can help us all be more empathetic, inclusive and understanding when talking about periods.
Use non-gender specific language. Menstruators and people who menstruate are really easy ways to make menstruation experiences valid for everyone. Also take a look at some of the euphemisms you use to describe your period. Lady business? Girl flu? We’ve all used those! Using the words period or menstruation helps to center the experience as a normal, biological bodily cycle. One extra tip: avoid calling pads, tampons or other methods of period protection feminine hygiene.
Menstruating does not mean you are a woman. Trans and non-binary folk who don’t identify as women can get their periods too.
Being a woman does not always mean you menstruate. If you’re a woman who doesn’t menstruate, this does not make you any less of a woman.
Look out for period protection that is gender neutral. The period aisle at the drugstore is filled with flowery imagery and products with packaging that screams these are for girls! But periods are for everybody. Products like Leakproof Underwear are great neutral alternatives that are designed to make everyone feel more comfortable and secure while menstruating.
Every person has a different relationship with their period. Everyone has a different body, and everyone has a different cycle. Ultimately, a period does not (and should not) define your worth.