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

No Pride without Black Trans Women

Vidhi Maheshwari

The life of Marsha ‘Pay it No Mind’ Johnson, a pioneer and activist of the gay liberation movement

Marsha P. Johnson was an American activist, a self-identified drag queen, a performer, and a survivor. She was a prominent figure in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. However, for much of her life, Marsha was ostracized from society. Almost thirty years after her death, she is finally getting the much-deserved attention that she was denied when she was alive. The tales of her activism are circulating on social media like never before, bringing attention to her legacy during this Pride month. 

“a Stonewall instigator, Andy Warhol model, drag queen, sex worker, a starving actress, and a Saint”

In the feature-length documentary ‘Pay it No Mind,’ director Michael Kasino (2012) attempts to showcase the life of Marsha, a Stonewall instigator, Andy Warhol model, drag queen, sex worker, a starving actress, and a Saint. When she died at age forty-six, in the summer of 1992, Marsha was mourned by her friends. However, her death did not attract much attention in the mainstream press. Using her final interview from 1992, Kasino highlights the fading story of Marsha – the legendary gay and trans rights activist.  She recounts her life at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots in the 1960s, the creation of S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with Sylvia Rivera in the 1970s, and a New York City activist through the 1980s and the early 1990s. 

While now being a highly celebrated revolutionary and activist, Marsha’s childhood was shadowed by plight and suffering. At the age of five, Marsha stopped wearing dresses because the boys next door, as she put it: “tried to have sex with me”. She was raped by a thirteen-year-old when she was twelve. This was just the beginning of the challenges that Marsha would face in the future. She was known for being herself and unafraid of the judgement, harassment, and ridicule she would face when dressing up as a woman. The hardships of a transgender individual were not new to Marsha. 

“Marsha was black, queer, gender non-conforming, and poor. Being a racial and gender minority, and the experiences of victimization, discrimination, and stigmatization that she endured possibly enacted as stressors which deteriorated her mental well-being”

For much of her life, Marsha was homeless, living on the streets of New York without any financial or living arrangements. She battled severe mental illness, was in and out of psychiatric institutions, and suffered from HIV towards the end of her life. She was also arrested frequently for long periods, which she termed as “a normal process”. Research shows how expecting rejection is not only a common and salient stressor faced by transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals, but it can also compound the negative impact on their mental health. Marsha was black, queer, gender non-conforming, and poor. Being a racial and gender minority, and having had the experiences of victimization, discrimination, and stigmatization that she endured possibly enacted as stressors caused her mental well-being to deteriorate. 

Despite the hard circumstances, Marsha was known for her open and optimistic personality. She could find joy in suffering and channeled it into political action with fierceness and grace. She dressed in flashy, homemade outfits, and decorated her hair with flowers, fruits, and even Christmas lights. In her words: “I may be crazy but that don’t make me wrong”. Her longtime friend Randy Wicker explained: “Friends and many people who knew Marsha called her ‘Saint Marsha’ because she was so generous.” Even after her death, the idealization of Marsha as a ‘good queen’ allowed the police to give trans people the street to mourn Marsha by blocking 7th Avenue. 

“During a time of zero tolerance for trans and black people, Marsha along with her friend Sylvia Rivera led the protests and were at the forefront of the liberation movement”

As soon as she graduated from high school, Marsha came to New York with just a bag of clothes and $15. Moving to New York and being a drag queen is what saved Marsha. Even though Greenwich Village was known to be one of the most tolerant places for the LGBTQ community, police frequently harassed those who didn’t adhere to societal gender norms. According to Tomas Lanigan-Schmidt, a human rights activist: “gay people were scheduled for non-existence, in other words, we were supposed to have no reality called gay, homosexual, except to be in a mental health institution getting shock treatments or getting fired from a job.” This was also a time when gay pride parades excluded transgender people as they feared damaging their reputation because of their presence. During a time of zero tolerance for trans and black people, Marsha along with her friend Sylvia Rivera led the protests and were at the forefront of the liberation movement.

“Being a black trans activist, added to the challenges Marsha faced due to the social and political climate she was situated within”

In Queer Necropolitics, the authors highlight the discourse between whiteness and blackness in the context of LGBTQ identity and rights. They explain Saidiya Hartman’s argument on how the transatlantic slave trade created a notion for blackness and made black people permanently available for the “enjoyment” of white people. This narrative of black people guilty in the eyes of the law and incapable of being violated has taken many forms and persists, even today,  as seen in the murder of George Floyd. In the context of LGBTQ rights, projects like ‘It Gets Better’ by Dan Savage and Terry Miller illustrate how gayness was linked with whiteness, as the campaign aimed to make white sufferings legible and worthy of protection. This essentially created a generalised narrative of escaping homophobia that was out of reach for LGBTQ people of colour. There are several ways in which anti-blackness operates in this discourse.  Being a black trans activist, added to the challenges Marsha faced due to the social and political climate she was situated within. Thus, vocal, persistent, and domineering, Marsha P. Johnson can be attributed to not only as the face of trans rights but also that of black trans rights. 

Previously thought to be one of the first people to resist the police during the Stonewall riots, Marsha told historian Eric Marcus that she only got to Stonewall after the riots had already started. The colour of her skin, her gender, or her identity as an activist and a leader could have led people to attribute her to be the pioneer of the riots – the first one to throw a shot glass heard around the world or the one to throw the first brick. Regardless, the riots of the Stonewall bar on Christopher Street were the turning point in queer activism. It led to the creation of many anti-racist and queer of colour organizations that brought attention to the heightened police brutality against LGBT people within and beyond the gay community. That same year, Marsha and Rivera founded S.T.AR., which advocated for sexual liberation and pushed to align gay rights with other social movements. 

While primarily documenting the life and challenges of Marsha P. Johnson, ‘Pay it No Mind’ also does a good job of articulating and highlighting the systemic oppression faced by individuals at the intersectionality of the black and the trans communities.  In today’s global and political context, through the documentary, members of the trans community can hear the story of Marsha P. Johnson, a revolutionary figure. The documentary acts as a source of inspiration and empowerment for the trans community. A way to connect with their history with pride, fight fearlessly for their rights, and carry on the legacy of Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. 

“It empowers a deeper understanding of the systemic oppression and brutality that the trans community faces even today”

For everyone else, the documentary is an eye-opener to visualize and empathize with the sufferings of the LGBTQ community. It empowers a deeper understanding of the systemic oppression and brutality that the trans community faces even today. It creates a sense of urgency and teaches compassion towards the cause of trans rights inspiring viewers to take action and march collectively with trans activists. The message is clear – trans rights are human rights. 

Marsha ‘Pay it No Mind’ Johnson was a pioneer and activist of the gay liberation movement. Marsha did not succumb to societal prejudice and political victimization and always fought for what she believed. She symbolizes trans resilience and sends out the message to trans communities to continue fighting till they have their rights not just in America, but across the world. In her words, “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us”. Marsha P. Johnson was truly a hero and today her legacy lives on in the fight for trans rights. 

Watch the 2012 documentary here

Marsha P. Johnson Institute – https://marshap.org/

Vidhi obtained her undergraduate degree in Psychology and International Studies from Bryn Mawr College, Philadelphia. She is currently pursuing her MA in Mental Health Counseling from Teachers College, Columbia University in New York.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala