Bleeding for Freedom – My First Period as a Non-binary Menstruator
By: Cass Bliss Clemmer
I never thought that the image of a stained pair of ordinary underwear lying unceremoniously on my teenage room floor would have remained burned in my memory for almost a decade. In the field of psychology, that kind of mental image is called a flashbulb memory – a vivid, if not incomplete, image that remains like a snapshot in your mind. Kind of like the blinding flash of a camera irreparably tattooing a memory onto your brain - a scar if you will. In the case of my first period, it was a memory that would change my life forever.
Before I got my period, I never really gave any thought to what gender meant, or even the difference between so-called “boys” and “girls”. As the youngest of two brothers and best friend to a group of “guys only”, I remember wondering, at the age of 5, when my penis was going to grow. I didn’t understand that there was an anatomical difference between me and my brothers, and I could have never predicted that those arbitrary differences would be what society would use to try to shove me into a category I didn’t belong in over the course of the next two decades.
I had no word for gender back then - I didn’t know what “transgender” was or that there were any other options aside from the Adam and Eve I was taught about in bible school. Between the lines of biblical passages, you can be rest assured that we were never given any information on sexuality, gender expression, or sex. Literally, god forbid my conservative community even let us talk about periods.
As much as I would like to blame my community and the generations before us for the problems of our past and present, I think my mom tried to prepare me as best she could for my first experience with menstruation. It’s not her fault that we lived, and still live in, a time where periods are so taboo to talk about that most adolescents are left to their own devices to figure out how to handle this transformational step in their development. The only lessons I had learned, from my community, pop culture, religion, and advertisements, involved the repetitive message that getting your period was the golden ticket to “womanhood”.
The thought terrified me.
“Womanhood” felt like a theme park filled with nothing but rides I felt desperately uncomfortable on and I watched with despair at everyone growing up around me. I wanted to get out of line, tear up my “golden ticket”, and run as far away from those entry gates as I possibly could. I was happy being who I was- free to be just Cass: an androgynous, adventurous kid just trying to find happiness in a world that kept trying to bring me down. I wanted things to stay that way – I didn’t want to become a “woman”.
But no matter how hard I begged and prayed to the forces above and around me that I would never get my period, I found out that life doesn’t quite work that way.
I was fifteen or sixteen years old, looking down at the growing reddish-brown spot on my underwear - my body’s signature on a contractual agreement to betray me. I stared at the blood and felt like something inside me had died, that I had forever lost hold of the freedom I once had to be exactly who I knew I was. Getting my period meant that I now had to be a “woman”, whatever that was, and learn to act in exactly the way that society told me to. I sat there on the toilet, reality hitting me like a slap in the face, knowing that there was no going back from this moment. Of the little I knew about menstruation, I was well aware that once your period comes, there’s no stopping it. I shuddered at the certainty of mother nature swooping in every month to remind me that my anatomy had socially exiled me into a world had no say in.
I cried until I couldn’t breathe.
It wasn’t until I was around 21 years old – roughly 72 cycles later – that I started to understand that the boundaries forcing me to exist in the world as a “woman” were pretty much artificial, and that they had nothing to do with my period. Akin to a government conspiracy, if you will, these false boundaries had been constructed and reinforced by Western culture, convincing an entire society that we must act, dress, label ourselves, and altogether exist under a set of strict rules simply because we were born with anatomical differences. That simple realization brought back to life the part of me I thought was gone forever. I was free again. Free to be exactly who I had known I was for over two decades, regardless of what society had tried to hammer into me time and time again. I came out as nonbinary not too long after that and started living my life free of the categories that had constrained me well before the day I got my first period.
Fast forward to now: I’m a proud trans and nonbinary activist who spends just about every day of my life challenging the period industry to rethink the way we force people who menstruate into categories of “womanhood” and “femininity”. The world still tries to shove me into a box I don’t belong in every single day of my life, but instead of collapsing at the pressure to be “normal”, I think about that image of the stained pair of underwear on my floor- that bloodied flag of surrender in a war for the freedom of my youth. The memory reignites a visceral feeling of loss and heartbreak, but I remind myself once again that I refuse to spend even one more minute of my life backing down from living as exactly who I am, whether I’m on my period or not.