Gender and Health: Thoughts on how Preconceived Gender Bias can Be Physically Harmful

Friends! Hello! It’s been ages since I’ve written anything. Work has been crazy, but now it’s summer, and I can finally breathe. I want to start by acknowledging the fact that not only is my title really long, it only barely begins to scratch the surface of this issue. My thoughts below are entirely centered on this article that I have just read about trans women/transfeminine individuals experiencing period and PMS symptoms:

Yes, Trans Women Can Get Period Symptoms

Specifically, this sentiment jumped out at me:

Whether it’s in a conversation with our medical providers, friends, or even immediate family, trans people  – AMAB folks in particular –  have historically been met with violent opposition when discussing their feelings and medical needs.

We’re often told we’re exaggerating things, seeking attention or sympathy, and that our reality can’t possibly be as we describe it. Sometimes these verbal assaults turn physical.

AMAB = Assigned Male at Birth

This sentiment (other people denying the severity of menstrual pain) was not surprising to me, because I am constantly reminding the classes I see that debilitating periods are not normal. A person should be able to go about most of their daily routines while on their period. If PMS or menstrual symptoms are so painful that you can’t get out of bed or cause you to vomit because of how much pain you’re experiencing or in any other way make it so you can’t function for a day or more you should talk to your doctor. What I don’t say is that you might have to convince your doctor that you’re not exaggerating, or you might even have to switch doctors until you find someone who believes you. The downplaying of women’s pain is systemic in our health care system. This gendered bias does real physical harm to some women and non-binary AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) individuals. I think that it is this and the toxic nature of masculinity in our society combined that culminate in this experienced “violent opposition” that trans people tend to experience when “discussing their feelings and medical needs.”

I want to take a second to take a step back and explain that I am a cisgender woman, and I have a degree in Women’s and Gender Studies. In no universe do I believe that this makes me an expert on trans experience. I want to acknowledge that my thoughts on this are largely theory-based, and if anyone has any type of constructive criticism of anything you’re about to read please do not hesitate to let me know.

According to Sam Riedel, the author of the article I’m talking about,  trans people are often told that they don’t know what they’re actually feeling, exaggerating for attention, and seeking sympathy. This sounds familiar. Women are constantly told this bullshit. We are ignored and told that we’re too emotional to handle things or make good decisions, and our bodies are used against us constantly. Women with trans experience are not excluded from this. By the very fact that they are women they are susceptible to this damaging and inflammatory rhetoric. Pages and pages of books and articles have been written about this treatment of women, and so I’m not going to dive any deeper than that. What I do what to think about is what Riedel says about AMAB trans experience specifically.

Riedel says that AMAB trans folks specifically “have historically been met with violent opposition when discussing their feelings and medical needs.” I think that we can probably find the root of this in the toxic masculinity that we force on (more than) half of our population. This, either overtly due to transphobia or inadvertently due to internalized bias and genuine misunderstanding of trans-ness, gets projected onto AMAB individuals regardless of their gender identity.

Boys aren’t supposed to cry. Men don’t really feel pain. Man-up. Men don’t talk about (or have) feelings. Men don’t need doctors – just walk it off. All of these ridiculous things are said all the time. This rhetoric is so ingrained into our subconscious that it even affects the way we care for children. Immediately comforting a girl toddler when she falls and hurts herself but waiting to see if the boy toddler cries or is bleeding before he receives comfort. People who are assigned male at birth and/or perceived to be male or masculine constantly experience pressure to be strong and stoic. Men and boys who don’t meet these expectations are often ridiculed or even punished for failing to fit into the mold. Violence is an inherent part of masculinity expectations, so it’s not a big leap to assume that a person ignoring and subverting these expectations because of their gender identity would experience a heightened risk for violence for talking about their feelings or their medical reality.

Trans women are experiencing bias on two fronts. They are discriminated against for being the women they are and they are punished for refusing to follow the rules of the label they were given when they were infants. This culminates in trans people not receiving the medical care they need, which is a systemic problem in all areas of health and not just menstrual. This dearth of care is putting people in the hospital and is forcing others to experience sometimes debilitating pain silently.

I wish I had a concrete solution to this. How do we make medical providers confront their bias? How do we train clinic and hospital staff on the specifics of trans health when we face budget cuts and a deprioritization of informed healthcare? I spend my time going into middle and high school classes talking about issues related to this, but even now I’m occasionally met with push-back and defiance of scientifically proven fact. My job is often vilified and has begun to lose funding. We live in a scary and uncertain time.

As always, please let me know your thoughts.















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