When you’re coming out, for some people, there’s a bit of mourning to do*. I grew up in a typical heterocentric suburban American home and viewed myself as a typical straight girl. Through my teen years, I had crushes on boys, I got used to dodging relatives asking if I had a boyfriend, and I adopted a vision for my future wedding that looked an awful lot like my parents'.
(*I acknowledge that I say this with incredible privilege. For many, coming out introduces far greater challenges.)
So when the time came for me to finally acknowledge my queerness, that came with a sense of loss––realizing that I would never answer my relatives’ questions the way they expected; I would never have the wedding I had grown up picturing. I mourned the future I had envisioned, and redirected my imagination to a new one.
As I began to embody my queerness, I found myself in the midst of losing something else I didn’t expect to lose: the solace of what I viewed as Superficial Girl Talk.
I remember sitting at a beer garden with two straight friends, and as we sipped our drinks in the humid Philly evening, the conversation turned to topics I no longer had access to–dating and sex. Too new in my queerness to comfortably discuss my experience with dating, I felt cut off from the conversation. I listened and nodded along.
As I continued to face similar conundrums with other straight cis friends, I found myself anchored to an age-old ritual I hoped I’d never lose: whining about our periods.
I got my period pretty late in high school, so when I joined the party, I felt like I had already missed years of engaging in this particular ritual. Communal moaning and groaning about cramps, slipping tampons to one another, comparing symptoms; it was a rite of passage, a secret language, a space where we could break social barriers and talk intimately about our bodies, creating trust with other period-havers by discussing subjects deemed taboo by outsiders.
It was a long while before I recognized how much I clung to the comfort of that bond and how, without realizing it, my relationship to my period kept me anchored to feeling like a woman.
As a queer person, and someone who does their best to practice intersectional feminism (a type of feminism which recognizes that to address one form of oppression, we have to take others into account), I see now how limited that thinking was. I knew, in principle, that not all women have periods, and not all people who have periods are women. But at the time, I didn’t have many trans* or non-binary people in my life, and regardless, I had never thought to apply those principles of inclusion to myself.
When I heard about Clue, I was struck by their inclusivity and how they outwardly stated that it’s an app for anyone who menstruates. I started tracking my period, and eventually applied and was hired to work there.
The longer I tracked in the app, the more my mindset evolved. By releasing the idea that the menstrual cycle is inherently gendered, I was able to let go of the link between my period and my gender.
Clue’s podcast Hormonal includes an episode titled “PMS is Real. PMS Isn’t Real”, which involves a thoughtful discussion of the connection between PMS and societal expectations and stereotypes. I used to think my worst PMS symptom was mood swings; I would tell people all the time that there was always one day before my period began during which I cried and got angry and irrational. I almost felt a kind of pride, being someone who manages this stereotypical, “womanly” symptom.
But after tracking my period for several months, I stopped experiencing this “mood swing” pattern, and what I see now is how I used society’s view of a woman experiencing PMS to explain away real, complex emotions I felt.
Through tracking, I began to see my period and symptoms not as signifiers of my gender, but as ways that my body was communicating with me, telling me what part of the cycle I was in the middle of. Hormonal cycles that everyone, regardless of their gender (assigned or otherwise), experiences.
With new understanding, these final ties to my gender fell away, and as I found myself surrounded by community in a proudly open and diverse city, I felt free at last to explore the final frontier of my queerness. And I could do it without feeling that I’d lost something. That’s the power language has.
Unfortunately, gender-neutral language around menstruation can and often does create tension. When language is evolving, it’s frequently the case that while some feel empowered by the changes, others feel like something’s being taken away from them. It can be uncomfortable when you feel like you’re falling behind or are worried that you’ll offend someone by using an outdated phrase.
Within the English-speaking world, we’re seeing a huge shift toward embracing more broadly-applicable gender-neutral terms, from the introduction of ‘Latinx’, a genderless alternative to Latina/o, to Merriam-Webster calling the singular ‘they’ their 2019 word of the year. While they can take time to adjust to, these terms are pushing our language in a needed direction. They push us as a larger society to recognize and give voice to folks outside the gender binary.
And as our understanding of sex and gender evolves, so too should our view of menstruation.
Gender conversations aside, menstruation is a highly variable experience that means different things to different people. The net result of using more neutral language is bringing those with less normative experiences of menstruation into the conversation (and making sure they’re getting the care they need). That includes everyone from transmasculine folks to cis women in menopause–since having a cycle is not the thing that defines someone’s experience of their gender.
The language in Clue that empowered me to embrace my non-binary identity might also empower a transmasculine person to recognize the symptoms of endometriosis or PCOS and, if this language is widely embraced by healthcare providers, that person can visit their doctor without fear of their identity being invalidated. The fact is, people of all genders have periods, and barrier-free access to support and information benefits us all.
Find out what it’s like when visiting the doctor as a trans person.
That taboo I felt I was breaking when discussing my period as a teenager is still prevalent now, and it’s one we can only truly break if we break it for everyone. Gender neutral language isn’t a trend or fad; it’s a movement to enable more people to discuss their experiences, with menstruation or anything else, authentically and honestly. There is so much more progress to be made to adopt neutral terminologies within English as well as within all other languages, but companies like Clue, Thinx, Aisle, and others are paving the way for a brighter, more inclusive future. And that’s something to celebrate.
Download Clue to track your cycle symptoms in an inclusive, gender-neutral app.