Tag Archives: Hormones

Testosterone Myths

I remember when I first realised my partner Robin might take T (testosterone) I was totally freaked out.

“You don’t need to act like any more of a man than you already do!” I whined, terrified that in changing his outsides to be more manly, I would lose from him some of the softer side of his already pretty blokey behaviours. “What if you get aggressive?” I pleaded. At one point I remember having a particular freak out and telling him I wouldn’t stick by him if he took that drug.

Oh, the shame.

And frankly, the unnecessary stress I put myself through because of a whole chunk of lies society tells us about testosterone. Now, a little more learned on the subject, I sigh inwardly when I watch a film and see the male protagonists’ adolescent, competitive bragging put down to “testosterone”.

T gets a really bad rap, and it also excuses a whole lot of crappy behaviour it isn’t responsible for.

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So first, let me tell you what it’s like living with a trans guy who has been on T for a couple of years.

Right from the start: So much calmer. Yes, you heard me right.

Robin has always, like me, been a little high strung and occasionally temperamental, but since taking T he has calmed right down. I’d like to say he’s happier, but that’s complicated. Life hasn’t been easy, with two of us transitioning. But he is less temperamental than he used to be, he really has chilled out.

The only exception was a few months in, he seemed edgy and grumpy and out of sorts and I thought to myself oh, aye, is this the T finally showing its true colours?

Turns out his T levels had dropped really, really low. A quick boost and he was right as rain again.

A year and a bit after Robin started on T, and a bit more than a year ago, I followed suit, and have experienced similar. I wouldn’t say I am calmer, exactly – I used to bite down my anger way too much, and these days I’m more likely to express it, to say “back  off” to someone who’s out of order rather than patiently explain myself ad nauseum. I don’t think it’s the T making me like that, it could be a growing sense of male entitlement or simply confidence as I feel more me. I’m less of a pushover, and I think that’s probably a good thing, although I have some way to go on that. One thing’s for sure, there have been no uncontrolled, T fuelled rages, no noticeable changes in my personality or who I fundamentally am. Maybe I am a bit more centred and growing into myself, but the changes are subtle.

And honestly, throughout life people change anyway, with or without hormones.

Of course, not all guys report this calmness, but most of the ones I know do. I worry about T’s bad rap, though, because just like it falsely legitimises crap behaviour in cis guys, so it can in trans guys who probably need to get counselling or anger management or do some anti-sexism work rather than blaming their shitty attitudes or bad behaviour on T. When Chaz Bono complained he was finding women’s voices more irritating, for instance, he blamed his “increasing maleness”, when a more likely culprit could be sensitivity to sound, a sensory problem common in trans people and exacerbated by stress. That or he’s just plain sexist.

And then there’s the sex drive thing. Yes, it does increase, and some guys don’t quite know what to do with that. Again, male mythology plays a part in this, as trans guys think they’ve developed a “male” sexuality with all the narrative baggage that comes with that. Having not (in some cases) enjoyed puberty first time round, they may have missed that burgeoning sexuality in their teen years, and think this is something exclusive to men (it isn’t).

Often, we’re just not quite ready to share this emerging sexuality with partners, we need to explore it on our own, along with a changing relationship with our bodies. It settles down, but my gosh we have such a dim view of men and their control over their own sex drive (poor helpless babies, my ass) that it can be almost frightening to feel like your body has been “taken over” by this drive. The mythology is at least as powerful as the increase in libido, and takes a bit of coming to terms with.

There is nothing exceptional about a male sex drive, and men’s sexual violence and objectifying behaviour has everything to do with rape culture, with notions of power and dominance, and nothing to do with testosterone or body parts. Studies show social and environmental, rather than biological, causes for human violence, including male violence. Meanwhile, guess what? Sex drives, violence, masculine traits and everything else are on a continuum, there are no binaries.

So, guys and enbys taking masculinising hormones: No excuses. it isn’t your hormones, it’s your socialisation, your trauma, your unchecked privilege, your sexism, your unsifted baggage. Roid rage happens to guys down the gym because they’re not being carefully, medically dosed and hormonal fluctuations indeed can cause problems, as can taking testosterone when you already have enough of it. Messing around with artificial hormones, taking them off prescription is not to be recommended, but if you’re transgender, and your brain maps onto a different hormone than the one running through your veins, T just might help (and it might not, and you can stop taking it if it doesn’t).

When it’s well documented, then I’ll believe it’s real

Rachel Dolezal has opened up a big old can of worms. Trans people are suddenly finding themselves caught in some rather transphobic crossfire, as people compare what she has done with what, say, Caitlyn Jenner has done.

I’m white, and therefore not well qualified to speak about race. My understanding of the word “transracial” is that it is a legitimate term, applicable to, for example, black children born or adopted into white families. So we can’t say “it isn’t a thing” but we can say it’s a questionable word to apply to Dolezal.

I don’t want to speculate as to what is going on for Dolezal, I don’t feel it’s my position to judge her but to follow the lead of the black community and accept their feelings about her. Her deceptions don’t sit well with me, but I cannot judge her situation because I am not connected to it. Were I involved in an organisation where something like this happened, I would be deeply concerned, and I would be consulting my black friends as to how to deal with her.

But I want to write about the comparisons being made to the trans community, because a lot has been said about it not being the same thing, but I think something has been missed as to why it isn’t the same thing.

Because the truth is, if Caitlyn Jenner was the first assigned-male person ever to show up claiming to be a woman, the world would rightly be suspicious. If there had not been a history, as long as the history of the human race, and across multiple cultures, of individuals who have similar experiences in relation to their gender, then cautious scepticism would be a fair response.

Maybe, scepticism would even be reasonable in the case of the first half dozen or so cases we encounter, maybe even the first hundred, but there comes a point where people have to adjust their world view and accept that something is a real thing. We are way past the point of this with trans people.

Transgender people exist – there are millions of us. We even have an inkling of how trans people exist, and an understanding that our hormones play a part in what turns out to be the very complex dance of gender. Our hormones influence our gender identity, and gender identity (for all the inadequacies of this term) is a real thing in and of itself, separate from both the socially constructed nature of gender and the biological facts of reproduction and chromosomes.

We have, as yet, no evidence that there is an equivalent phenomenon to this in terms of race. I am open minded, and if one is discovered, I will accept it as a real thing when the evidence is in. But there is no reason to assume that just because a particular phenomenon occurs in relation to gender, which is mediated by hormones as well as social construction, that it would therefore occur in relation to race, which arises from a very different set of historical and social conditions.

For instance, there is not a point, after conception, when an embryo has a chance to be born either black or white, depending on the hormonal journey it takes in the womb. There isn’t a hormone I can take that will switch on some biological coding to make me black, in the same way I can take testosterone and masculinise my body.

They are different things, and that’s all there is to it. And it doesn’t seem that Dolezal is claiming they are the same, but rather claiming a right to “choose” her race. This is where analogies with trans folk really get me steamed up – trans people do not “chose” their gender, the only choice, if choice it is, is how to negotiate their gender in a cissexist world.

The salient discussion is about how we experience gender as something over and above the historical and constructed, and more than just in connection with our reproductive systems. I’m not at all sure that race is experienced in the same way, or that there is evidence of a phenomenon related to race that fully matches what some call gender identity.

Meanwhile, this debate is distracting us all from the issues of racism that matter – the police profiling of trans women of colour, and their frighteningly high presence in statistics for victims of violence and murder; the extraordinary double standards applied in the reporting of crimes committed by and against black people and white people, horribly evidenced by the last week’s US and UK news; and the ongoing, casual white supremacy that every one of us white folks supports, often unconsciously, every day of our lives, just by being so easily distracted from what the real issues are regarding race.

Because making an issue that is entirely about race and racism all about trans issues also gets us off the hook from exploring our racism. It’s a neat distraction, but look how easily when racism comes up we skip off into something else entirely.

Me and my hormones

In my 20s, nobody minded messing around with my hormones. Like most uterus owners who sleep with testicle owners, I was shoved on the pill at an early age. For me personally, one dysphoria* trumped another – my absolute terror of pregnancy meant I would do anything to ensure sex was safe.

The pill seriously screwed me up, physically and emotionally. In my early 30s, a doctor figured out that I was naturally low on oestrogen, and the modern oestrogen-low pills were just making things worse. She prescribed me one of the old-fashioned pills, higher in oestrogen.

I read through the side effects and dire health warnings nonchalantly. For a very short while I felt a little better, but my body had other ideas.

Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) happened, and that was the end of me taking any kind of hormonal contraception, or any other oestrogen-based drug.

DVT meant not being able to walk, months of medical messing around and eventual surgery. More frightening than that, the clot could have travelled and caused a fatal embolism.

Needless to say, I don’t take any medication lightly now.

A decade or so later, and I am contemplating taking another hormone – testosterone. Of the physical dysphoria I experience as a transgender person, hormonal dysphoria is quite the most persistent. Ever since puberty, I have felt as if my hormones were slowly poisoning me.

The desired effect of testosterone is that I will feel better, and I admit this is an experiment – it may not be true, but I believe the anecdotal and scientific evidence stacks up enough to give it a try.

I may take it and not like it, and that’s okay. I can always stop taking it.

Like the previous hormone, I may be one of the few that suffers undesired side effects, even though the therapy has been proven to be very safe. That’s a risk I am willing to take. It frightens me – I suppose it should frighten me, but I am well informed and this is my body, my risk to take.

The side effects I am ambivalent about are the visibly masculinising effects of testosterone. I want them up to a point – as a non-binary person, I would love to be able to press “pause” at the point where it is impossible to tell whether I am “male or female”, and nobody will gender me ever again. In reality, I know from my transitioning friends that there is no such point – people will always seek to gender you, and I have friends who have been ma’am’d and sir’d on the same day.

I don’t believe that testosterone will “turn me into a man”. I don’t “want to be a man” – I am who I am, and always have been; no amount of testosterone will change who I am. There’s a chance that it will make my outside appear more congruent with who I am, because if gender was on something as simple as a line (it isn’t), then I fall on the more male end of that line.

So, a possibly beneficial side-effect of testosterone is it may ease my social dysphoria, as well as my physical dysphoria. Quite honestly I would prefer to ease my social dysphoria by challenging and changing this cissexist, sexist, heteronormative and binarist society. Sadly, changing myself turns out to be a tiny bit easier than changing the entire world – who knew?

If I get read as a man it is also quite possible I’ll feel I’ve exchanged one lie about myself for another. Only time will tell, and many people in my situation have to moderate and stop/start their testosterone dose in order to get where they need to be.

Other folks may not be entirely comfortable with the fact I don’t know exactly how (and if) things will work out for me, but I am over being certain for other people’s benefit – all of life is one experiment after another, and this is no different – it’s a thought-through, talked-through and well researched experiment, but it’s still an experiment.

I want to take testosterone and I suspect the internal map of who I am will match up to that hormone with a click, as it has for the many other trans folk who have felt the need to take it.

If it doesn’t click, well I just stop – no harm, no foul. It’s my body, my choice.

But the hormones that could have killed me, they were handed over to me with no fuss or preamble – no year of waiting, no searching questions, no psych diagnosis, no “are you really really sure?” – given to me like candy, there was a carte blanche to mess with my hormones as much as they liked as long as it was “women’s hormones” I was given.

Even that’s a lie – we all have the same hormones – men have oestrogen, women have testosterone. In no way are we as divisible, separate and binary as we love to think of ourselves.

So, next time someone speaks in hushed tones about whether a trans person understands the enormity of what they are doing, here’s the challenge – is the “enormity” really about health and psychological consequences, which have been proven time and time again to be highly favourable for trans people who seek medical treatment, or is it simply because we are screwing with a simplistic, binary picture of nature and sex?

Because I think what I am doing is no more screwing with nature than the contraceptive pill is screwing with nature. No more unnatural than anaesthetic, or abortion, or any other surgery or medical intervention that is known to prolong, preserve, or improve quality of life as medical treatment for trans people has been categorically proven to do.

I don’t want my identity to be medicalised – my identity is what it is no matter what treatment I seek, but I want the option to access healthcare that can help me.

There’s a good chance hormones will make me healthier and happier – all the evidence points that way. I hope one day my right to bodily autonomy will be fully recognised, and that folks will accept that healthier happier people do not make the world a lesser place.

 

*I’m on the fence about the word dysphoria – given its true meaning, the opposite of euphoria, it feels apt in my case, but I dislike the medicalisation of it and it’s relationship with diagnosis and mental health – my apologies to those who might prefer I used a different word.

Recognising the wisdom and autonomy of transitioning people

I try not to talk too much about Robin, my transitioning partner, because it is not for me to discuss or speculate about his experience. But this week he started taking testosterone, and this is a really big deal for both of us, bringing a tidal wave of feelings – curiosity, fear of change, excitement, trepidation.

Some people around us have been worried – how will I feel about you when your voice drops? Well, how did you feel about your son/brother/cousin/friend when his voice dropped in puberty? The same? Uh-huh, I thought so.

Or they’re worried Robin will change – again, recall that son/brother/cousin/friend – still the same person, right? And normally puberty is accompanied by massive changes in the brain structure, and huge personality development – trans men are only going through hormonal changes, it’s actually not that big a deal.

It’s HRT, that’s all. We only see the change as so “huge” and “fundamental” because we live in a world that reinforces and emphasises the idea that men and women are fundamentally different when in fact they’re not. It’s a minor adjustment to someone’s physiology to help align them better with their internal compass.

I want to say it’s no big deal but of course it is – society makes it a big deal. There’s irrefutable evidence that social support makes for good psychological outcomes for trans people. The only correlation between trans people and poor mental health is as a result of high levels of stigma, abuse and oppression. But society still seeks to control trans people’s lives via stigmatisation and marginalisation.

Which is why as well as having to deal with the changes that are happening, Robin and I have the extra psychological burden of worrying if the new neighbours moving in next door will be transphobic and whether we’ll be the target of hate speech and hate crime as the changes become visible. We also have to deal with transphobic “feminism”‘s ongoing assault on the bodily autonomy of transgender people. And of course there are those peripheral acquaintances loudly voicing their disapproval of Robin’s “choice” because they “care” about him, and obviously know better than him.

So let’s get this out in the open. Going through transition is hard, and it incurs an enormous loss of privilege, as you become a member of a hugely put down, disparaged and marginalised minority. Although things are generally much easier for trans men than trans women, loss of status and loss of community are unlikely to be balanced out by the gaining of male privilege, particularly as Robin plans to remain out as a trans man. Even though HRT is pretty safe and routine, no medical treatment is without its risks. I know this and Robin knows this. 

What are the chances Robin would not have thought very deeply about such an important decision? Who knows about it more – the neighbours, those acquaintances gossiping over their beer, some TERFs whose dogma depends on not seeing trans people’s perspective, or Robin, who has read book after book, paper after paper, spoken to countless trans men all over the world, consulted with people who have detransitioned and people who are uncertain, quizzed the doctors over every aspect of treatment and talked through, challenged and questioned his own thinking endlessly?

Watching Robin come to this decision has been like seeing someone coming into focus for the very first time – there’s a light in Robin’s face I’ve never seen before. Resistance, bigotry and prejudice make things hard, and this is no picnic he is living, but like any coming out process the pain of rejection is mitigated by the discovery of the kinds of good souls who say “I may not understand, but I honour you and trust you, and will be your friend and ally in this”.

It’s hard to stomach the kinds of folks who patronise trans people who are in such a vulnerable position, flying in the face of social conventions in order to live a more authentic life. I guess I know that folks like that are insecure in their own lives and need that buzz of feeling superior; that “power over” trip. But those are the people who make something ultimately joyful unnecessarily painful.

Given how much misinformation is out there, it is exceptionally hard to know much about trans people, and it is exceptionally easy to stumble into a false narrative of misguided, inferior people seeking to do something artificial and even dangerous. Meanwhile, people who transition live their lives in the vast majority of cases healthier and happier than they were pre-transition. And in being healthier and happier they have more to offer the world, so this is no selfish decision but an absolute win-win.

I have had my own journey of acceptance to make around Robin’t transition, my own battle with prejudice and fear. But I recognise that Robin’s wellbeing and success is very much bound up with how I choose to respond to him. I could never have changed his mind, but I could have made him sad and fearful and alone in his journey. I have not been perfect – there were moments when fear won, but I hold onto the fact that love is a more powerful agent of positive change than fear will ever be.

What people who transition require in order to thrive and contribute to society is not judgement, prejudice, fear, gossip, unsolicited advice or opinions – they require trust, acceptance, support and love, just like everyone else.