In March 2018, JK Rowling liked a tweet that described trans women as ‘men in dresses’. On June 6, 2020, Rowling once more turned to Twitter and her 14.5 million followers to voice her response to the phrase ‘people who menstruate.’ The author wrote: “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
Twitter users—as well as the star of the Harry Potter films, Daniel Radcliffe—reacted immediately, pointing out that trans men and non-binary people also get periods and that not all women menstruate. Period activists such as C, also known as The Period Prince, have been campaigning for years to make our conversations about menstruation more inclusive. C is masculine non-binary, but they have chosen not to take hormones, so they still get periods.
In 2017, they shared a photo of themselves sitting on a bench with visible period blood between their legs, sparking the hashtag #BleedingWhileTrans. Over the phone to Vogue, C explains how important language is in destigmatising menstruation for trans and non-binary folk, saying that “the small messaging is important. All the language that we tie into periods is not set. You don’t have to live your life under the definitions that somebody else made up.”Setting boundaries and breaking barriers
So how do we start to break down these highly gendered barriers to period comfort? Looking at the issue from a structural perspective, C says that “we need to start with education so people understand that they don’t have to be a woman just because they’ve got their period.
“Having to go and buy products and walk under that sign that says feminine hygiene never felt good,” C adds. “When I first got my period, I felt like I had to start putting on this play for everybody, a play that I didn’t want to be in. It didn’t fit. It felt like a puzzle piece that kept breaking.”
Language is only one aspect in the fight for period equality. There are practical challenges that need to be overcome, too; people who use men’s public bathrooms and get periods do not have access to sanitary bins or dispensers. “If I go to a restaurant and I get my period and I’m looking really masculine that day and I’m with all male friends, I can’t walk into the women’s bathroom and get a tampon,” says masculine non-binary artist and activist Kai Wes. “What do I do then? I have to leave.” Men’s bathrooms also often only have one, if any, individual cubicles in them so the privacy required for changing a tampon is not always available. “I’ve definitely kept a tampon in way too long and risked toxic shock,” Wes adds. “People die from that. The thing is, people just don’t think of this because no one wants to talk about it.”
There are ways to make period-related safety and comfort more accessible for the trans and non-binary community. However, in order for people to realise that spaces need to be made more accessible, representation is vital. It’s rare to find a period website or see a period advert featuring models that are not cis women. In March 2018, Kenny Ethan Jones became the first trans man to front a period campaign when he appeared in a promotional video for Pink Parcel, talking about how his period experience might be different from most, but it should not be erased. In response to Rowling’s tweets, Jones wrote: “As a black trans man who advocates gender equality within the period space I’m disgusted you’ve chosen now, in the height of the Black Lives Matter movement to be transphobic.”
Jones tells Vogue, “When I featured in the Pink Parcel campaign, I don’t believe many, if any, people had even considered that trans men, non-binary and intersex individuals experience periods.” Since then, some smaller companies have followed suit. Canada-based Lunapads make ‘period products for every body’. They regularly spotlight trans and gender-nonconforming models and sell boxer-brief period underwear. “I feel like we are seen a lot more now, but we are definitely an afterthought,” Jones continues. “I completely understand and recognise that the majority of people who bleed are women, but by excluding my community they are by default, erasing our experience.”Universal experience
Rowling’s comments follow the same argument of trans exclusionary groups: that by including the trans community in conversations about periods, you are excluding cis women. Gabby Edlin, co-founder of the charity Bloody Good Period, says that “people talk about trans inclusion erasing women, but I’ve never felt erased in any of the work that I do when I include trans people. Seeing feminine symbols and design on period products is not how I feel like a woman.”
Julia Ehrt, a spokesperson from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), agrees, saying: “I don’t think it takes anything away from women, but it really benefits trans men, so why would you not do that? There has been a certain level of opposition from [trans-exclusionary] women’s groups but at the end of the day, do they really believe including trans people takes something away from women? I don’t think so.”
Trans YouTuber and influencer Charlie Allan suggests that making period products more accessible for the trans community is less about packaging and more about normalising men buying period products, regardless of whether they are trans or cis. “People think that men can’t buy period products which is ridiculous whether the man himself is getting the period or not,” Allan tells Vogue. “A cis husband or a dad should be able to buy tampons. It’s not just a trans thing. If you specifically make out like it’s only trans men that buy them, then we’re going to feel awkward because it’s not what cis men do. If it became apparent that all men bought [period products] for whatever reason, then that would probably make trans people who get periods feel safer.”
Pride celebrations may not be able to exist in their usual format this year due to COVID-19, but this month is still an opportunity for queer people everywhere to come together in solidarity. Rowling’s rhetoric that trans people are somehow taking rights away from cisgender lesbians and gay men attempts to divide the queer community at the very time when it should be united, especially when Pride was started by trans people of colour.
The language we use to talk about periods is important and there are a number of ways to continue to implement these messages at every level. As C concludes: “At the end of the day, it all comes down to education. Educate your friends, educate the people around you, educate your family. You don’t even have to do anything externally. Just think about it and change the way that you’re framing it in your own mind.”
As we move towards eliminating period poverty, improving access to period products and removing taboos, it’s important that we consider all of these diverse experiences because there’s no one way to get a period.Also read:
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