Talking Periods Beyond Gender

Kanika Malhotra

Women are not the only ones who menstruate, why it’s important to go beyond gender when talking about periods.

An individual’s gender is not defined by their sex. Sex is a biological concept that, in this context, defines “male” and “female”. Gender is an individual’s identity separate from their biological sex. It is not determined by hormones or chromosomes. So, an individual’s gender identity may be different from the sex they are assigned at birth.  As explained by French theorist and philosopher Simone De Beauvoir in her book “The Second Sex”, one isn’t born a woman, “social discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to be caused by nature”, rather, one becomes a woman. The behavioural traits that may define men and women are acquired and are not pre-determined by anatomy. Gender is, therefore, not a direct consequence of an individual’s biological sex. 

“Menstruation is highly misunderstood when it comes to trans and non-binary individuals”

Menstruation is a biological function commonly linked to the female sex, however, it is not limited to cisgender women. The term cisgender is used for people whose gender identity matches their assigned sex at birth. It is also important to note that not all women with female reproductive systems menstruate, and that can be due to various medical and non-medical reasons. This assumption that only cisgender women menstruate is reflective of the lack of understanding and ignorance around the subject. Menstruation is highly misunderstood when it comes to transgender and non-binary individuals. Like cisgender women, they also, may or may not menstruate. 

J.K. Rowling’s recent transphobic tweet regarding menstruation, which received backlash and was taken down by Twitter, reflects this ignorance and bias that people have against transgender and non-binary identities. In India, transgender and non-binary people face similar prejudiced and ignorant comments. Speaking to Bol Magazine, Saral, a trans woman, explains that when she came out to one of her close friends they were shocked: “How is it possible? Aren’t trans people by birth?” This statement is reflective of how little people know about gender identities. 

“They are vulnerable to societal exclusion due to rejection of their avowed gender identity. This exclusion leads to violence against people of the transgender community”

The term Transgender is used to describe people whose gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned, usually at birth and based on their genitals. They are vulnerable to societal exclusion due to rejection of their avowed gender identity. This exclusion leads to violence against people of the transgender community. If they choose to undergo a medical transition to change their primary sex characteristics, for instance, a person assigned male at birth and wishing to change to female, they may seek gender-affirming surgery or “sex change”. That said, they also face difficulties transitioning their sex. Gynaecologists often deny transitioning or charge excessively.  Moreover, there are not enough doctors or clinics providing  transitioning care.

A survey conducted in 2018 by the nonprofit organization Lambda Legal found that 70 percent of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals have faced discrimination in a healthcare setting. The ignorance of gynecologists and general practitioners (GP) has resulted in misery for various individuals wanting to transition. “My worst experience, as a trans man, was when one GP refused to help me transition and said they’d do everything but ‘that’, like transitioning is a disease” says Math Blade, a trans man from the USA. He reflects: “My experience has been bad if I don’t have my beard, or if I am on the phone. Depending upon the clerk I get asked to get my husband on the phone. If they continually insist I throw my voice deeper, which hurts, and finish the transaction.”

“Representation of periods in the mainstream is always about cisgender heterosexual women. It has never been inclusive of any other gender”

Menstruation for cisgender women is a taboo in Indian society, and while periods have been recognised and represented mainstream, the same is not true for transgender individuals. They continuously face the stigma of people not accepting or understanding the fact that they may also menstruate, depending on what part of their transition they are in.

Representation of periods in the mainstream is always about cisgender heterosexual women. It has never been inclusive of any other gender. The education regarding periods is gender-segregated, taught only for cisgender girls by cisgender women in schools and in homes. Not only does this cause alienation but also creates an atmosphere of ignorance about menstruation for other genders. 

Being able to afford menstrual hygiene products such as sanitary pads and menstrual cups is a privilege in India. An article by Deccan Chronicle revealed that a person in India spends 300 Rupees (INR) on pads every month. That is nearly equivalent to 1,40,000 Rupees (INR) spent on pads for their whole life. According to a National Family Health survey only 57% of Indian heterosexual cisgender women in urban areas can afford menstrual pads at MRP (Maximum Retail Price). High costs and taxes associated with menstrual products also make them inaccessible for trans people, who may not be able to afford them. 

“accessing public toilets is another challenge, because of the existence of male and female only toilets”

Moreover, accessing public toilets is another challenge, because of the existence of male and female only toilets. Men’s toilets are not conducive spaces for menstrual hygiene and so trans men don’t have a safe space to change pads, or any other period product. There are no dustbins for disposal of pads. In some public toilets for men there are no private stalls. There are also cases of physical, verbal and even sexual abuse behind the doors. In 2016 in India, the highest number of assaults on trans people occurred in public toilets. Trans and non-binary people are denied spaces where they can change clothes, use toilets or change pads. 

Talking about the lack of access to toilets, Sonal, a trans woman, explains this issue: “During the pride parade I wanted to pee but I didn’t know where. Whenever I go out, I don’t drink much water. The biggest issue a transgender or non binary individual faces is where to go for a washroom, where? I have seen that whenever I go to a women’s washroom I have seen some discomfort in some women and we don’t even have the option of gender neutral washrooms, so where should we go?” 

“Menstruation, toilets, uniforms, and changing rooms need to go beyond gender”

Menstruation, toilets, uniforms, and changing rooms need to go beyond gender. Travis Albanza, who identifies as trans feminine, was denied access to a changing room in a TopShop showroom in the UK. They told buzzfeed that they wanted to relax and chill with their friends but instead their entire day became politicised.

Menstruation is a biological function. Creating a safe and accessible space for all humans who menstruate, regardless of their gender, is essential. This can be done by setting up gender neutral washrooms and changing rooms, and incorporating gender neutral language and more representation in the mainstream. School uniforms are gender neutral in Wales, UK. This  means that when a list of clothing items is published by the school, they will not be assigned to a specific gender. This helps non-binary and transgender children to feel included and safe. It prevents the imposition of gender on children. 

“Parents should ensure that they are allowing their children the freedom to figure out their gender identity. This can be done by not restricting their choice of toys, clothing or the colour of their room because of their gender, pointing out and correcting transphobic language, and not misgendering them by using incorrect pronouns”

Parents should ensure that they are allowing their children the freedom to figure out their gender identity. This can be done by not restricting their choice of toys, clothing or the colour of their room because of their gender, pointing out and correcting transphobic language, and not misgendering them by using incorrect pronouns. Always, a brand which sells sanitary products has made a decision to remove “Venus”, a symbol used to represent females, from its packaging in order to be more inclusive of trans men and non-binary individuals. Using words like “menstruators” or “menstrual hygiene” is another way to be inclusive. 

Transphobic minds cannot be changed overnight but everyone deserves a safe place for basic needs like using the toilet and access to menstrual hygiene products. Everyone deserves to be treated equally and with dignity and respect regardless of their gender, and that can be accomplished only through an active effort towards a more inclusive society.

Kanika is currently in high school in 11th standard. She believes in feminism and advocates for inclusivity of the lgbtqia+ community. Writing is a medium through which she expresses her opinions and takes a stand. Her other interests are skating and films.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala