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No, Acknowledging That All Genders Can Menstruate Doesn’t ‘Erase Women’

Kelly Gonsalves

If you think only women have periods — and feel upset when people tell you that other genders have them too — let’s talk.

Period product company Always announced last week it will be removing the Venus symbol (commonly used as a “female” emblem) from its packaging to be inclusive of all the other genders that menstruate. The move has drawn backlash from some women who believe they’re being erased from conversations about periods and who feel like the movement toward gender inclusivity is devaluing or attacking what they see as womanhood itself. Some people have said having periods and being able to give birth are what make women special and unique, and they believe it’s disrespectful to try to make these things apply to men and others.

A lot of this pushback involves willfully ignoring a biological fact: that trans men, non-binary people and people of literally all genders can menstruate, and many do. But I’d wager that what’s driving the transphobic uproar isn’t outright hate for trans people and people of other genders; rather, it’s a lack of understanding and, more than anything else, a reflexive fear of losing one’s identity.

In essence, this is a demand that we all ignore trans and gender-nonconforming people’s biological reality in order to preserve cis women’s feelings. And we can’t do that.

Just to set the record straight, gender doesn’t have anything to do with your body.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, everyone is assigned a sex at birth based on their genetics and body parts, and your sex is not the same as your gender.

“Gender identity is defined as a person’s deeply felt, inherent sense of being a girl, woman, or female; a boy, a man, or male; a blend of male or female; or an alternative gender,” the American Psychological Association explains in its guidelines for treating trans and gender-nonconforming people. “Gender identity differs from sex assigned at birth to varying degrees, and may be experienced and expressed outside of the gender binary.”

Cisgender people have a gender that aligns with their sex assignment, whereas trans and non-binary people don’t. There are an estimated 1.4 million trans and non-binary Americans. When we try to describe biological processes like menstruation and pregnancy as what makes women “unique and special,” we’re reducing womanhood down to a set of body parts. No matter if we’re cis or trans, we should all be able to agree that women are way more than our bodies. We have shared experiences, pressures, joys, and struggles, and those are what unite us.

Yes, all genders can menstruate.

Unlike gender, menstruation is about your body. Anyone with a typically functioning uterus and vagina will menstruate, regardless of their identity. For example, a trans man who has a typically functioning uterus and vagina will menstruate. That’s just a biological reality. So yes, men can have periods. In fact, anyone of any gender can have a period.

“Not all women menstruate and not all people who menstruate are women,” OB-GYN Dr. Jennifer Conti tells SheKnows. “If you have a uterus and aren’t pregnant/breastfeeding, menopausal, hormonally suppressing your periods, or dealing with a condition like PCOS, then you’re likely menstruating.”

To clarify some confusion, we’re not talking about trans women here. Most trans women do not have uteruses and vaginas and therefore don’t bleed. We’re talking about trans men. Many trans men have uteruses and vaginas, as do many non-binary folks. So they bleed.

Those women who are upset about making periods inclusive seem to think trans and non-binary people are somehow choosing to have their period. But of course, just like any cis woman, a trans man or non-binary person doesn’t get to choose whether menstruation “applies” to them. No one gets to choose whether or not they menstruate. If you have a uterus, menstruation is just your physical, biological reality.

“Gender has nothing to do with someone’s ability to menstruate,” Dr. Conti says. “It’s important to talk about gender as an irrelevant construct from menstruation—because it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside; you may have a uterus and you may be bleeding.”

It’s not fair to deny trans and gender non-conforming folks’ physical reality just so cis women feel “unique and special.”

Consider the trans man who has a uterus and therefore menstruates every month. How do you think he feels hearing everyone demanding we all keep saying only women menstruate? That guy probably already deals with a lot of stress and alienation from his own body every time he gets his period. What’s the point of making his life more miserable by telling him that his period invalidates his entire identity?

Research shows that denying, invalidating, or ignoring a person’s gender comes with real health consequences. Trans kids are already nearly four times as likely to deal with depression, and many studies have shown trans kids are even more likely to struggle with their mental health and attempt suicide the more they experience discrimination and stigma. One study published in the Journal of Homosexuality found trans kids who are denied access to gender-appropriate bathrooms, for example, are 45 percent more likely to attempt suicide.

Another study published in the American Journal of Sexuality Education found most LGBTQ kids received sex ed that only talked about heterosexual people, and the more excluded sexual minorities were from the discussion, the higher their rates of anxiety, depression and suicide risk are in high school and later in life. But research tells us the flip side is also true: more inclusive classrooms make LGBTQ students feel safer, face less bullying and get better grades in school.

Being validated and included in the conversation has a huge impact on LGBTQ people’s health and well-being. No one is denying that the vast majority of people who menstruate are girls and women. That said, there’s no reason to pretend that they’re the only ones who experience this, at everyone else’s expense. The same goes for pregnancy, breastfeeding or chestfeeding, or any other part of reproductive health.

Dr. Conti notes: “If a man with a uterus needs to wear a pad to soak up his period blood, what else would you propose he use? Man pads? Toddler pull-ups?”

We need to learn to share space.

I get it: for many, our womanhood is precious to us, and part of what’s at stake here is feeling able to unite and connect as women around a shared identity shaped by shared experiences. It’s true that these physiological realities do deeply affect the experience of womanhood for many. Many women bond over the shared experience of bleeding, birthing, breastfeeding and fending off all the sexist BS we deal with because our bodies do these things. We’ve created a deep, meaningful, powerful sense of community and shared identity over these physical experiences.

That’s valuable, and it’ll continue to be valuable. It also costs us virtually nothing to welcome people of other genders to come join, compared to how much those people gain from being included.

As feminist philosopher Dr. Kate Manne pointed out in a recent tweet, cis women are confusing “not being at the center of a discourse” with “erasure.” What’s at the heart of the backlash against acknowledging that all genders can menstruate is wanting to retain control of the narrative. It’s about cis women not wanting to relinquish the comfortable assumption that every conversation about periods has to do with them. It’s about wanting to keep that space for themselves and trying to stop it from being taken away. In short, it’s a loss of privilege.

“Where I see a step towards equality and viability, others experience a removal, a discomfort—otherwise known as privilege,” sexologist and sex educator Emily L. Depasse tells SheKnows. “The reactions to the removal of the Venus symbol exemplify privilege, and the discomfort in existing alongside trans and non-binary identities. It’s a confrontation that many cis-het identities do not yet have language for.”

We’ve always privileged cis women in conversations about periods and procreation because they’re the majority, and people seem to be experiencing the loss of that privilege as a personal attack—when it’s not.

We need to be able to share space. Even when that involves experiences that deeply affect our sense of selves, we need to be willing to let other people be at the table in peace, especially when those others are people who are already severely marginalized and way more oppressed than we are. Especially as women continue to fight for our rights and dignity, we need to be allies to others who are fighting for theirs. We can’t justifiably speak out about feeling erased while ourselves erasing other people.

Cis women don’t need to fight for the spotlight with trans and gender-nonconforming folks. We can celebrate and commiserate over periods, pregnancy, and the like without making it an exclusive party.

Women are way more than their bodies.

Nobody is going to forget that many cis women menstruate and give birth. To the contrary, our societal preoccupation with cis women’s menstrual cycles and ability to give birth tends to disadvantage us more than anything. Women still get passed over for jobs on the chance they’ll get pregnant, and then professionally sidelined or fired if they actually do. American women also used to pay more for health insurance because of their procreative abilities until Obamacare’s anti-discrimination policies came along (though the Trump administration and the GOP put in a solid effort to dismantle those rules.) As for menstruation, in 2016 people still brought up the whole “What if she’s on her period?” as a reason why a woman shouldn’t become president—and I swear to God I will drop kick the next person who asks me if I’m on my period just because I’m expressing normal human emotions.

We should also acknowledge that not all women have vaginas (as is the case for many trans women), and not every woman with a vagina is able to give birth or breastfeed. None of these women are any less of a woman because of what their bodies can or can’t do.

“Being inclusive around all procreative activities is better for trans men and non-binary folks who participate in them; it’s better for cis women who don’t or can’t; it’s better for trans women who typically can’t; and it’s better for cis women who do, absent bad ideology,” Dr. Manne writes.

One thing that actually makes women unique and special? Our willingness and dedication to supporting and lifting up the most vulnerable among us. The bottom line is that everybody deserves to be validated, supported, and given access to healthcare resources as they navigate their biological realities, no matter what their gender or identity might be.

And that starts with all of us acknowledging and speaking the truth: People menstruate, not just women.

A version of this story was published October 2019.

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