What you need to know:
Menstruation isn’t just a ‘women’s issue.’ As we mark the Menstrual Hygiene Day today, it’s time we opened up the conversation
Talk about menstruation and the imagery it would emanate is that of a woman. While the importance of men's participation on the dialogue about menstruation has been hailed as an effective tool to raise awareness and break the social taboo around the topic, there is no conversation especially in Africa about men who have periods.
There has been 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.
It’s a difficult topic, experts note, especially in many parts of Africa where ‘being other’ is taboo and illegal. Largely, the LGBTQ issue is seen as carrying Western ethos.
The men and menstruation issue once in a while sparks a row online, especially when it comes to the transgender inclusion. One such trigger was the trending hashtag #ifmenhadperiods which was meant to highlight the ways that sexism plays out around the topic of menstruation—such as through a lack of medical progress or material support—but ended up been labeled as not being inclusive. Why? “Some men do have periods—and many women don’t,” it was fronted.
Another spat was when Harry Potter Author J.K Rowling took to Twitter in the wee hours of June 2020, to challenge a headline that said, “People who menstruate.”
She wondered what happened to their name, “People who menstruate. I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
It is easy to see why. For decades, menstruation has been gendered—you can spot that in the packaging of the menstrual products and labels on the supermarket aisles. As a result, most quarters equate having a period with being a woman and something that signifies womanhood.
But what happens when you identify as a man and still have periods?
As conversations around eliminating period poverty and improving access to sanitary products increase, there is a group that is advocating for inclusion in conversation around menstruation and an end to a lingering period shame and stigma. They are transgender.
Transgender people have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from their sex assigned at birth.
To break it down, gender and sex are two distinct aspects of our identity. “Biological” sex largely has to do with our sex organs. For instance, if a baby is born with a vagina, they’re assigned, female. If your gender identity doesn’t match what you were assigned at birth, you may be transgender or non-binary.
In reality, people of different genders bleed yet we rarely get to hear about their experiences.
We speak to three transgender about their relationship with periods.
Maurine Ochieng, 32, who prefers Mauricio Ochieng is a second-hand clothes and shoes businessman. He leads an organisation called, Trans support, an organisation supporting transgender and intersex in the Western region
“I am biologically born female. As such, my transgender identity is from female to male. I started medically transitioning in March 2019.
Growing up, my mother used to tell me that I never conformed to what society defined me as. I was in a scary middle ground, lost between the two genders. But, if I were to re-live my childhood, my memories are of me running around bare chested, climbing trees and playing football.
In my teenage hood, I didn’t “grow out” as people commonly say from the fact that I didn’t feel like a female. There’s no word to describe whatever I felt but whenever I could see my genitalia, it felt like it wasn’t mine. At one point, still in adolescence, I moulded something that resembled a penis and put it inside my pants. My breasts grew, my behaviour was outlandish and I was mostly a loner. I am the sixth born out of eight siblings.
My periods were delayed and it was until later into teenage hood that I got them. I cried at the death of my freedom. I couldn’t even master the courage to ask for sanitary pads so I relied on what was available —cut mattress pieces and vests. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was having periods.
But, there were days when out of frustration, I would just let it flow because I used to wear men’s underwear. I didn’t want to have a pad on them. Each time I had the periods, it was like I was shedding my gender identity and back to what I was running from.
At one point, I had to buy a few panties and some sanitary pads. I was later advised to use tampons.
It is not easy being a man who’s having periods. First of all, there are no sanitary bins in most male toilets so you have to figure out what to do with the tampon. Then you go to the supermarket and the aisles are labelled as feminine hygiene products. On most occasions, I would pretend that I was buying for someone so I’d make pretend phone calls, “what size did you want?” I would ask, as I nodded in agreement.
I started getting cramps when I started transitioning. And there is nothing as painful as cramps without blood. For the past two years, I have had my periods until sometime this week. I have been unwell and did not go for my monthly injection last month.
I remember seeing that red dot and I was like, “again, back to this thing?” it is too much for my mental health and it makes me feel sad. Largely not because it’s happening but the fact that I cannot openly talk about it.
It’s a big battle between my mind and body and in some instances, I let it flow. It’s sad. Despite my transition, I still acknowledge that I was born a female and have my womb. I ask myself, “what next?” These are conversations that people don’t hold and when they do, there’s a limit to how far they can reach. It’s the same challenge with matters of mental health. Importantly, people need to know that periods are not always a woman’s affair.
Even in our spaces, these conversations are hard to have. Some transgender people feel that you are not one of them because you still having periods.”
Cynthia June, 25 preferred name is CJ
“I didn’t start identifying myself as a trans man until two years ago. I had been exploring my gender and what that meant to me and eventually came to the conclusion that it had to be this way.
For starters, I hated being called a tomboy or other labels like a stud. My gut reaction was to almost performatively hate my body, which is very sad. But I found other people like me and realised that it was not a unique struggle. Because of the costs that come with medical transitioning, I have not managed to do it so I have started with the social one. However, I have not told my family yet—it is an open secret.
It worries me whenever I am having my periods and it is the kind of worry that only engulfs me during such a time. I feel like it is a sell-out.
A 2020 study conducted by the Transgender Education and Advocacy (TEA) explored levels of public acceptance of transgender persons among Kenyans. The study revealed high levels of stigma towards transgender persons with 83.3 percent of Kenyans interviewed having stigma towards them. Transphobia was also prevalent among these respondents with 86.7 percent of respondents harbouring anti-transgender prejudice and hatred.
When I have my menstruation, which takes about three days, I rarely go out. One because I am usually moody and two, because I don’t have to give many explanations.
I get very bad cramps. Also, that process of changing pads freaks me out. When I go to meetings, I can’t rub it on to everyone that I am a transgender. When they find me out, I have to be a planner. The experience of using a men’s toilet is not the best because there are no sanitary bins and unwrapping a pad seems like the loudest thing while in that situation. In such situations, I have to use female toilets.
For pads, I mostly get them from the various organisations that advocate for our rights. I still find it hard to buy pads mainly because of the looks that I get. When it is a man selling me pads, it is even worse because they will ask what type you want and look at you as if you owe them an explanation.
I think there’s a lot of period shame and stigma. And especially for people like us, so much so that I find it hard-wearing pads in the presence of my partner. Identifying as a man makes me feel very happy except at that time of the month. If there was no stigma, it would be a great conversation to have.”
Nakshy Said Ibrahim, mid-30s, Founder of Pwani transgender organisation
“I was assigned male gender at birth but started transitioning to a female eight years ago. I decided to come out and found an initiative for people like me. I am currently transitioning both medically and socially.
When I first had my periods which was like seven years ago, it was a big surprise and I didn’t know what to expect or what was happening to my body.
I have been transitioning medically and I take hormones that causes the release of estrogen. As a result, I experience cramping, sore breasts, and period-associated reactions, during certain times of the month. The only difference between me and a female, is that I don’t bleed.
You see for girls, parents or teachers sit down with them and share on what to expect and even how to place the pads. Nobody did that with me. Since I had been labelled a boy, there was an assumption that I didn’t need to know about periods.
Periods get me feeling moody and when I am experiencing a lot of pain, I try to stay away from people. But it feels good that my identity matches my experiences. It is a reminder that I am a woman although it is mostly a painful experience.
I run an organisation called Pwani transgender organisation where we advocate for human rights and social inclusion. We also encourage one another on how to fight for our spaces, deal with our issues like menstruation and how to live in peace and harmony.”
About Menstrual Hygiene Day 2022
This year the day, which is marked on 28th May, seeks to break the silence around periods, tackle the stigma often associated with them, and raise awareness of the importance of menstrual hygiene for women, girls and people who menstruate around the world.
According to Melody Njuki, communications and partnerships officer at Initiative For Equality and Non-Discrimination (INEND), the lack of inclusivity alienates people who do not menstruate but Identify as women, people who menstruate but were assigned female at birth not forgetting Gender Non-conforming (GNC) Persons. The organisation helps to combat the shaming of people who menstruate through advocacy messaging and conducting sensitisation training.
“Menstruation can be particularly tricky to navigate if you’re a trans or non-binary person.
This is because of feelings of gender dysphoria — the distress a person feels when the sex they were assigned at birth does not correlate with their gender identity — might be heightened around your period. The hyper-feminine language and bright colours used on period products also don’t help.
How trans and non-binary people can protect their mental health while menstruating:
- It’s important to note that not every trans person who menstruates will feel dysphoric about their period. Every trans person has a unique relationship with their body.
- Build gender affirmation into your routine — like planning gender-affirming outfits, being around other trans people, and cutting out potential dysphoria triggers like social media, especially when experiencing dysphoria with menses.
- Painful periods might also act as a trigger for gender dysphoria. It's important to set reminders to take supplements or pain killers or use a heating pad or hot water bottle in order to manage symptoms like cramps.
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