For transgender men, pain of menstruation is more than just physical
When transgender model and activist Kenny Ethan Jones experienced his first period, he faced both physical and psychological pain. Initially, Jones, who had not yet come out as trans at the time, felt like he was losing control and didn’t understand what was happening to his body. However, one thing was clear: He didn’t feel like himself.
“I didn’t believe that having periods would be a part of my lived experience,” Jones told NBC News. “I felt isolated; everything about periods was tailored to girls, yet me, a boy, was experiencing this and nothing in the world documented that.”
He currently experiences a wide range of challenges with his monthly bleeding, especially when it comes to getting his hands on menstrual hygiene products.
“Having a period already causes me a lot of [gender] dysphoria, but this dysphoria becomes heightened when I have to shop for a product that is labeled as ‘women’s health’ and in most cases, is pretty and pink,” Jones explained.
Some transgender and gender-nonconforming people who menstruate, like Jones, say when the products are categorized as women’s products, they can feel alienated — and may even avoid purchasing them altogether.
“I’ve definitely seen a positive shift with the discussion around women experiencing periods, but the stigma towards trans men, nonbinary and intersex individuals having them is still alive and well,” said Jones, who gained attention in 2018 when he was the face of a U.K.-based menstruation company’s ad campaign. “People are still reluctant to the idea that it’s not only women that experience periods.”
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, founder of Period Equity, which advocates for affordable and accessible menstruation products, said, “Anyone who menstruates needs to be part of the discussion and decision-making about their own health and well-being.”
The hurdles some trans men and gender-nonconforming people who menstruate say they face include the high cost of period supplies, lack of access to the products, safety concerns and inadequate medical care. Some of these challenges were recently brought to light when a story about menstruation product maker Always removing the female sign from its sanitary products went viral in October.
A box of 36 tampons, which could easily be used within one menstruation period, could cost as much as $12 — that’s significantly more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Additionally, menstrual hygiene products sold in the U.S. are still subject to sales tax in 32 states.
A survey published last year in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology found that nearly 64 percent of low-income women in St. Louis, Missouri, could not afford menstrual products — and nearly half of the women who participated in the survey were unable to afford both food and period products.
The cost and taxation of menstruation products could hit transgender people even harder, according to Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Trans individuals, according to Heng-Lehtinen, “are experiencing poverty, unemployment and underemployment at higher rates, so there is absolutely economic vulnerability here.”
His organization’s 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found trans individuals are more than twice as likely to live in poverty and three times as likely to be unemployed as the general population.
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Lack of access
Not only are transgender individuals impacted by the cost of menstrual products, but they also may not have access to them when they are free. While they are sometimes available without cost in women’s restrooms, Gabriel Arkles, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, said that those who menstruate who feel more comfortable using male restrooms will almost never have access to free tampons and pads.
Some schools like New York University have taken steps to distribute free menstrual hygiene products across campus, specifically in women’s and gender-neutral restrooms and offices. While advocates applaud those prioritizing menstrual inclusivity, they argue these products should be in all restrooms.
“This is a health care product, so it should be widely available. I think everyone in society is better off if they are more available for cheaper prices or for free in more places,” Heng-Lehtinen said.
Homeless transgender men face similar barriers when accessing tampons and pads at shelters. Women’s shelters, if they can, will offer the products, while men’s shelters will likely have little to no options for those who menstruate, according to Arkles.
Even if cost is a nonissue, using a men’s restroom can be daunting for those who have their period. The sound of opening a tampon or pad, or simply carrying one, can lead to unwanted attention.
“You might have this monthly terror where you’re concerned that if you go to the restroom, and someone sees a tampon, then they’re going to start asking questions,” Heng-Lehtinen said.
The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, the largest survey of trans people in the U.S., found that nearly 60 percent of transgender respondents reported being too afraid to use public restrooms due to fear of a confrontation. Twelve percent reported being verbally harassed while accessing a bathroom in the past year.
“Men’s restrooms typically don’t even have places to throw away menstrual products within a stall. We have to discard them in a trash can in the common area of the restroom or even outside of the restroom,” Arkles said. “That’s inconvenient at best — at worst, it outs us and exposes us to possible discrimination and violence.”
Violence is a very real concern for transgender and gender-nonconforming Americans. The U.S. Transgender Survey found that nearly 1 in 10 trans respondents reported being physically attacked due to their gender identity in the year prior to the survey, and nearly half reported being sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. The FBI’s latest hate crimes report found a 34 percent increase in anti-trans violence reports between 2017 and 2018.
Discrimination and stigma when seeking menstrual and reproductive care — ranging from treatment for an irregular menstrual cycle, to pap smears and cervical cancer screenings — are further obstacles for transgender people who menstruate.
The U.S.Transgender Survey reported that 1 in 3 respondents had at least one negative experience with a heath care provider — ranging from verbal harassment, to refusal of treatment and even teaching the provider about transgender individuals in order to receive the right care.
Dr. Juno Obedin-Maliver, an assistant professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the co-director of The PRIDE Study, said the general lack of knowledge about how to support transgender, nonbinary and intersex individuals, along with stigma and discrimination, contribute to these negative health care experiences.
“Good treatment starts with respect and knowing who the patients are and dropping assumptions,” Obedin-Maliver said.
Dr. Meera Shan, chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic, said health care providers’ lack of knowledge about LGBTQ health issues “can cause patients to feel incredibly uncomfortable and may even cause them to not return to care at all.”
Historically, medical knowledge has been gender-based and does not reflect gender diversity, according to Obedin-Maliver. As a result, there can be a misconception around what menstruation is for anyone who is not a cisgender woman.
“We need to broaden the discussion around sexual and reproductive health, and move away from it being solely a gender conversation about women and think about people of all genders,” Obedin-Maliver explained.
Shah said that if medical professionals don’t adopt gender inclusivity into their medical practice, patients will likely be addressed with incorrect pronouns, asked irrelevant questions or experience delayed medical care.
In May, reports surfaced about a pregnant transgender male who sought help at an emergency room for severe abdominal pain. The patient told a nurse he was transgender and his at-home pregnancy test was positive, but staff reportedly didn’t consider it urgent. By the time they began treatment, he gave birth to a stillborn.
Shah and Obedin-Maliver said many of their patients have experienced inadequate medical encounters. But while there’s much room for improvement, more and more health care providers are becoming educated about the issues unique to transgender and gender-nonconforming patients. And there are resources for those looking to find affirming and knowledgeable health care providers, like the provider directories available from the Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality and the Campaign for Southern Equality.
As for Kenny Ethan Jones, he said he has no plans to stop advocating for more transgender-inclusive health care.
“I’ll be spending my 2020 championing for further inclusion of my community,” he said.