I’m usually very private about my medical history, but many of you have been with me for the duration of my whole “project”, and I just see this as another chapter of our journey together. I started hormone replacement therapy a little while ago, which means a lot more estrogen, and a lot less testosterone. And plenty of people have asked me: What’s it like? This curiosity is completely natural – I wanted to know, too! – and I would love to tell them about it. This is something the vast majority of people will never experience, and there’s a lot for all of us to learn from it. The problem is that there are so many issues that can get in the way of discussing this and distort it into something completely divorced from reality.
Talking about how it feels seems like it should be the simplest thing in the world. Unfortunately, it’s far more complex than you might expect. First, I haven’t been on HRT long enough to experience any physical effects, aside from softer and clearer skin. It’s not magic – most of this won’t happen in a week, or a month, or maybe even a year. At this stage, almost all of the effects are mental. And paying attention to what’s going on in your mind is hard enough already, whether you’re transitioning or not. Trying to pick out what might be due to your shifting hormones is a whole other level of difficulty, and it’s really easy to fall prey to the placebo effect. Sure, maybe I’m in a ridiculously good mood because of estrogen, but that could just be the elation of finally getting started. Did I cry at a movie on the Oxygen channel because of hormones, or was the movie just that good? I can’t tell, because there’s no way to blind this sort of thing, and having a sample size of one certainly doesn’t help.
I’ve also relied on those around me to point out any differences they’ve seen in me, such as being somewhat more expressive. If these changes are real, I might not always notice them. We don’t “have” brains, we are brains. And likewise, we don’t just have hormones – we’re made of hormones. It’s not easy to examine a phenomenon within yourself as though it were distinct from yourself, because it really is a part of you. Of course, the people around me aren’t blinded either, and they might also be highly attuned to any apparent differences, and inclined to attribute them to hormones. And we might also only notice what seems to be new, while failing to look for things that haven’t changed. People pay more attention to the times you cry than the times you don’t.
But figuring out what’s actually changing is only half of the problem. Talking to other people about it presents a whole new array of difficulties. We live in an incredibly gendered world, where so many behaviors are classified as inherently male or female. Even when those behaviors are obviously and unavoidably shared by both sexes, we still find ways to create artificial distinctions of gender. Somehow, we’re supposed to believe that women are naturally drawn to the kitchen, but when men grill up some steaks with their friends, that’s a “manly” thing to do. And when dolls are dressed in G.I. Joe outfits, it suddenly stops being so “girly” to play with them.
Because certain behaviors are seen as being male or female in themselves, people look for ways to connect this to male and female biology. And that’s where hormones come in. When I describe how I feel now that I’m switching from testosterone to estrogen, it’s disturbingly easy to fall into the trap of talking about it in a way that’s based on the common mentality of “men do this, women do that”. And even if I do my best to avoid that, everyone who’s listening will still be inclined to view this in terms of common stereotypes about men and women – whether they know it or not. This is the result of all of us spending our entire lives in a society that conditions us to think that men and women have a fundamentally different existence.
Just look at how the Nashua Telegraph described one woman’s transition:
Cynthia, now 48, has developed a new love for chocolate and ice cream – possibly a side effect of the hormones. And a half-hour isn’t enough time to get ready anymore.
Yes, because women spend all day eating Dove bars and taking forever to do their hair. “Men, eh eh eh eh, women, doo doo doo doo!” No. That’s not how the world works, and if we continue to believe this, we’ve got a problem.
Even just saying that I now feel more in touch with my emotions comes with an absurd amount of gendered baggage. Not only will I be more inclined to attribute this to HRT because of everything I’ve heard throughout my life about the supposed essential natures of men and women, but those who hear it will take it as yet more evidence of “Ah, yes, women are emotional creatures tossed about on the winds of their feelings, but men are cold and rational!”
If I didn’t make a conscious effort to think more deeply about this, I might not have realized that what I’m actually sensing is a greater control over my feelings – an ability to see them more clearly, observe their features, and not be as unduly influenced by them as I used to be. If I hadn’t been able to put aside those crude stereotypes about men and women, I wouldn’t have been able to communicate all of that nuance to everyone who wants to know what this is like. So, is this a “male” or a “female” phenomenon? If I’m a man, a greater grasp of emotions might mean I’m diplomatic, understanding, and good at handling conflict. If I’m a woman, it makes me “sensitive”.
Likewise, if I were to point out that I now find it much easier and less stressful to deal with cooking, cleaning house, and taking care of the kids, most people wouldn’t be able to avoid seeing this as further evidence that women are somehow optimized for domestic life and men are just naturally lousy at household duties, as illustrated by every commercial ever. These beliefs are so pervasive and occluding that it would be easy to stop at that shallow observation and ignore the fact that this just happens to be what I spend all day doing, and maybe it only feels easier because everything feels easier for me now. Is it male or female to be happy? If I’m a man, it makes me a stronghold of enduring optimism. If I’m a woman, it makes me “perky”.
This is why talking about HRT is such a minefield. Switching from male to female hormones provides an ideal example that people can grab hold of and plunder for anything they can use to reinforce their ideas about the attitudes, behaviors and abilities to which men and women are “naturally” predisposed. Transitioning is about many things, but it’s not about going from one stereotype to another. Hormones don’t do that, because no one is that one-dimensional, trans or not. It doesn’t do us any good to pretend that this reflects reality. The darker side of the assumption that a certain set of behaviors and preferences define manhood and womanhood is the belief that the absence of these features makes someone less of a man or a woman. When cis people don’t fit into this model, people use these standards to strip them of their worth. And when trans people don’t meet these standards, we’re stripped of our genders. This isn’t helping anyone.
Perhaps because of the implication that manhood and womanhood are inherently different modes of existence, I’ve been asked whether I feel “like a new person”. I feel different, but that doesn’t make me an entirely different person. It’s really not that stark of a division. This isn’t like being injected with Borg nanoprobes that start whispering inside your head. It’s not like turning into someone else. You’ll still be yourself. This isn’t a cure-all, it won’t make you superhuman, and it won’t destroy who you are, either. It might just help you feel better, and if it does, then this could be what works for you. The grass is the same color as it is over there – I’m just seeing it a little differently now. And I’ll let you know if anything changes.