Weeks ago, a once-beloved children’s book author sent a tweet she seemed to think was clever or funny. Replying to an article about creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate, J.K. Rowling wrote, “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
The tweet sparked immediate backlash from followers who saw her “funny” words for what they really are: an invalidation of transgender people.
“What's happening right now with J.K. Rowling and the trans-exclusionary folks who have said very clearly that the only people they consider to be women are people who have uteruses is really painful,” says Tess, a transgender woman and professor of informatics.
It’s painful for transgender men and nonbinary people who have uteruses and are hearing that their body parts define their gender. And it’s also painful for transgender women like Tess, who don’t have uteruses and don’t bleed on a monthly cycle, but who are women and many of whom do have a period. “As a trans woman, obviously you don't have a monthly bleeding cycle, you don't have a uterus, you don't have ovaries. But you'll hear trans women talk a lot about having their periods,” says Meghan, a transgender woman and officer in the Royal Canadian Navy.
We’ve spoken with six transgender women, including Tess and Meghan, about their experiences with menstruation, from dysphoria to PMS. Read their stories below:
On periods and pregnancy:
Many of the transgender women we spoke to said they never felt much dysphoria around menstruation itself, but did start feeling dysphoric when they connected periods with pregnancy.
“It’s very confusing to feel the urge to have a child when you can’t,” says Mia, author of Yes, You Are Trans Enough. Some of the women pointed out that this is also true for cisgender women who struggle with fertility — yet, their inability to menstruate and to conceive a child doesn’t negate their womanhood.
Yet others watched their partners through pregnancy and birth, and felt a longing for that experience. “My body regrets not being able to have children. When my wife and I were planning to start a family, I was much more interested in childbearing,” Tess says. “She said, ‘I guess we could have switched.’ I would have done so in a heartbeat.” At the time, Tess wouldn’t have described wishing that she could switch places with her pregnant wife as dysphoria. “But I can retroactively understand what I felt as a form of dysphoria. While my wife was pregnant, when she was breastfeeding, I strongly empathized with her, and identified with her, and felt blocked from being able to do so because I was still presenting male.”
Meghan has a similar experience. Thinking about periods leads her to thinking about pregnancy, and even though she and her wife have three children, she feels like she missed out on experiencing pregnancy for herself.
For Aurelia, who works in tech policy, wanting to be able to get pregnant led to obsessive thoughts about periods. “I had a real fixation prior to coming out and realizing that I was trans about being able to have kids and therefore have a period as symbolic of that,” she says. “It was this thing I was endlessly curious about and endlessly fascinated about. I thought it would be nice to have that cycle.”
On clueless things cisgender women say (but shouldn’t):
“The only negative emotions I’ve had relating to periods is when cis women tell me I’m ‘lucky’ for not having them,” Mia says. She understands that it’s meant to be a joke about how terrible periods are, but it’s a hurtful comment nonetheless. “If I had a choice of my body having a period or not I’d choose not, but if you take a second to think about why I don’t have one it’s because my body can’t bear children. There’s nothing ‘lucky’ about that,” she says.
Even well-meaning cisgender women say hurtful things like this to transgender women about menstruation. “It's similar to the first time you get catcalled as a trans woman or the first time you get talked over at a meeting or interrupted. A well-meaning cis friend will say, ‘Welcome to being a woman.’ And that can be problematic because I have experienced being a woman and not being seen as a woman for years. And these things make it seem like my womanhood is contingent upon presentation,” Tess says.
On PMS symptoms:
Meghan was once in the camp that trans women can’t experience PMS. “I thought it was maybe wishful thinking or psychosomatic,” she says. But then she started feeling PMS symptoms herself when her endocrinologist switched her to a new antiandrogen, which prevents androgens like testosterone from affecting the body. “Within a couple of weeks, I started getting much more emotional than I used to. My emotions started bombarding me and I would have these crying fits.” One day, Meghan came home from grocery shopping and, as she was unpacking the bags, her wife asked if she remembered to get diapers. “I said, no, I forgot, and I immediately started bawling my eyes out,” she says.
Eventually, the mood swings became cyclical, showing up every three to five weeks, and Meghan started feeling some physical symptoms, too. “There have been about two or three times when I've actually experienced physical cramping in my lower belly. And anytime I heard other people say they experienced cramping, I thought that's not physically possible. We don't have the parts,” she says. Now, Meghan feels much more sympathetic to other transgender women who talk about their periods. And the experience seems pretty common — Tess, Aurelia, Crystal, and Angela, a writer and developer, also feel PMS symptoms.
“I tend to have trouble seeing the bright side. I tend to get pretty grumpy and moody,” Tess says. “I also get some of the gastrointestinal symptoms of menstruation. I get cramping. My girlfriend who is also trans gets more serious cramping.”
For Crystal, “it's a predictable pattern of weight gain, listlessness, and being done with the world. Once in a blue moon it comes with some minor cramping for a few days, which is honestly a little upsetting because wtf down there is even cramping?” she says.
Aurelia, who has bipolar type two, started getting severe emotional swings after starting HRT (hormone replacement therapy). “Having mood swings on top of a disposition to have mood swings is not great,” she says. It took a while to figure out how to manage her moods, and Aurelia was having severe cramps on top of that. “It's definitely a thing I am very aware of now that I might have a week where I'm just going to have an anxiety attack every day. I can understand what I need to do and take a week off or reschedule my day,” she says.
Angela’s experience has been more positive. She says, “After a year, I added progesterone to my HRT, and the staccato moodiness of my ‘second puberty’ took on a wave-like quality, ebbing and flowing. After a few months on progesterone, I found myself having PMS-like symptoms, generally around the same time as my wife, a cis woman. Those symptoms include greater emotional extremes (both good and bad), sentimentality, defensiveness, an increased craving for certain kinds of food (salt! chocolate!), bloating due to water retention, greater likelihood of migraines, and less energy. This lasts five or six days. I think the experience actually causes a kind of gender euphoria in me. It was an unexpected development but it feels correct. Like something my body wants to do.”
On period-tracking apps:
As they started noticing PMS symptoms coming every month, many of the women we spoke to started using period-tracking apps to know when to expect mood swings or cramping. “I'm in the process of trying to map something, because I'm noticing that there are some weeks when I’m just feeling bitchy. I don't want to be, but I can't help it. And it seems to be cyclical,” Tess says. She’s started using a period tracker to track her symptoms, and while she’s had to disable some of the features — she doesn’t care about ovulation or whether or not she might be pregnant — she’s able to see the emotional cycle.
The same is true for Meghan, whose period often lines up with her wife’s. “We get very snappish and we are very, very, very emotional. I even downloaded a period-tracking app so I could see that every three to five weeks I would have these peaks and valleys when my hormone cycles were kicking in,” she says.
On commiserating with other women about their periods:
It’s a common experience for people who menstruate to complain to each other about their periods — the cramping and mood swings that affect their days. Many of the transgender women we spoke to say that as cathartic as complaining about your period can be, for them it’s also validating.
For Aurelia, complaining about her PMS symptoms to a friend helped her realize that’s what they were. “I was talking with one of my dear friends about feeling bloaty and crampy and I hadn't quite figured out what was happening yet. And they said, ‘Oh, you're having your period,’” she says. That conversation led to her friend giving tips about how to manage her period.
Meghan’s period confidant is her wife, who will notice her mood swings and make fun of her. “She’ll say ‘I know you're on your period because you’re being moody, you're emotional,’' Meghan says. She says comments like this feel “strangely validating” and “wonderful.”
Tess leans on a close group of friends, both cis and trans, when complaining about her period. “I haven't had to go in-depth with my [friends] about the biomechanics of my period. But they understand that I’m experiencing something that parallels what they are experiencing,” she says. There is this sort of shared solidarity that you get from sharing suffering about what your body does to you, whether you want it to or not.”
Kasandra Brabaw is a freelance writer and editor with focus on health, sex, and LGBTQ+ identity. You can find her work at Health, Bustle, Women's Health, Allure, and other publications.
Image via Broadly.
If you think you might be experiencing Gender Dysphoria and want to learn more about it and your options for treatment or support, take a look at this article by Choosing Therapy.