Pregnancy, Gender Dysphoria, and the Pill

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A while back, I posted a link to the talk that I gave about gender dysphoria at last year’s Q conference. In that talk, I mention my own experiences with gender fluidity, and specifically the effect of hormonal shifts during pregnancy. A reader asked if I could elaborate on that, and wondered whether I had ever considered treating my dysphoria using estrogen/progesterone supplements in order to make myself feel more consistently feminine.
So first of all, “gender fluid” is often considered to be the flakiest of all the special snowflake gender identities. People tend to think that it means you wake up in the morning and choose your gender the same way that most people choose their clothes. “Hmm? Would I like to be a girl today, or a boy? Let’s go androgynous. Wee! Ain’t I precious.”
I’ve arrived at the conclusion that “fluid” is the best available descriptor for my experience of gender because, frankly, it changes with hormonal shifts. So, shortly after I became a Christian I experienced a massive up-spike in how “feminine” I felt. I thought that I had received some sort of miraculous healing of my femininity and my writing from that period reflects that belief.
I continued to feel more or less comfortably feminine with some minor variations, and low levels of dysphoria, until a few years ago when suddenly I just hit a wall. I came up with all kinds of spiritual and psychological theories for what had caused this sudden massive resurgence of GD. It didn’t really occur to me that the cause might actually be hormonal, because as a general pattern I like to pretend that my body is a kind of semi-convenient, semi-irritating appendage of my mind. I feel about it kind of the way I feel about this computer: it’s really useful in a lot of ways, and it’s definitely an impressive tool if you consider it in the abstract, but on the other hand it’s slow, it won’t play half the games that I would like it to, and it crashes a lot for no readily apparent reason.
Anyway, after experiencing much more intense dysphoria for a couple of years I woke up one morning and thought, “Hmmm. I don’t really feel like being conflicted about my gender today. I think I’ll go sew some doll clothes.” I was intensely irritated by this thought (it offended both my queer sensibilities and my feminist convictions), but at the time I way too busy to put much effort in worrying about why I suddenly felt like gender dysphoria was something I could just shrug off.
A couple weeks later, I got the answer that I hadn’t bothered looking for. I missed my period. Then the pregnancy test came back positive. I was able to ascertain that the specific day that I had that bizarre thought was precisely the same as the day when implantation hormones should have hit my system. For the first time, I realized that actually what changed shortly after I converted to Christianity was that I got pregnant. And I remained either pregnant or breastfeeding for most of the rest of my adult life, until I had a miscarriage and had to take a break for a while. And that was when the dysphoria suddenly came crashing back into my life. Until I got pregnant again.
Hmm.
So for me, gender fluidity is not determined by some kind of personal choice. It’s determined by hormonal factors. When I’m pregnant, I experience very low levels of intermittent dysphoria but for the most part I feel comfortable with my femininity. When breastfeeding, the levels of dysphoria are a little higher but they also fluctuate along a continuum that ranges from feeling kinda feminine to feeling moderately masculine. If I graphed it, I suspect that it would follow my menstrual cycles (I know another woman whose experience is similar and who has bothered to graph it, and she has found that the dysphoria does spike during certain parts of her cycle and ebb during others.) When I’m neither pregnant nor breastfeeding I feel alienated from my femininity pretty much all the time, with some days being worse than others.
Now, it would seem that treating this with feminine hormones would pretty much take care of the problem, right? Well, kind of. I inadvertently did this when I went on the Pill in order to treat a medical condition (if you feel the need to play combox inquisitor about this, you can go read my post about lawful therapeutic means.)
I can say that being on estrogen/progesterone did, in fact, basically make the feelings of dysphoria go away. It also turned me into a complete suicidal basket case. The thing is, when you’re pregnant people expect you to be overemotional and tired all the time. I’ve always accepted that that’s just part of what’s involved in making a new human being. But when it’s every day, all day, for months on end, and you can’t tell yourself that it’s going to be over soon and then you’ll have a baby to cuddle, and nobody feels like they have to pamper you because you’re with child, it’s unbearable.
More to the point, I didn’t feel like myself. One of the things that I’ve always found difficult about pregnancy is that it does feel, in a certain sense, like I’m losing myself. It’s like my personality has a dimmer switch, and it gets turned down when I’m expecting. Being on the Pill had the same effect. The person I think of as “me” just got drowned in a constant overwhelming deluge of emotion.
I’m sure that folks who always feel feminine have ways of dealing with the effects of female hormones on their brains. Most of the women I know have sophisticated emotional management strategies that they use to avoid feeling continuously stressed and aggravated by intrusive feelings – a lot of them even seem to enjoy the intense spectrum of emotion that they experience. (I’ve actually had trans women tell me that the increased variety and intensity of emotion is one of the things they value most about taking estrogen.)
I do not enjoy it. I have great stoic techniques that allow me to endure intense emotion, but my vast preference is to exist in a state of emotional equilibrium. Feminine hormones interfere with this.
When I realized that the Pill was basically destroying my mental health I stopped taking it. One of the really noticeable, immediate changes was that my level of gender dysphoria suddenly went back up to its usual level. And it was a massive relief, because even though there are struggles involved in feeling alienated from my femininity, at least I feel like myself.

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About Melinda Selmys