By Franny Choi
“Periodic” is a monthly column by poet Franny Choi. Every month, she writes a short column on the first day of her period—a check-in that might cover issues of gender, queerness, writing, health, and/or love. This series is an experiment in occasional writing and an exploration of what it means to write about menstruation with a queer imagination.
Chrysanthemum Tran and I wrote poems together for the few years we overlapped in Rhode Island. You hold a special place in your heart for the people who were present while you were trying to imagine yourself into existence, and Chrysanthemum was one of those people. We were two queer, Asian American fem(me)s in our twenties, far from home in so many ways, and using writing to try to understand what it meant to occupy our bodies in the context of an Ivy League university built with slave trade money; in the context of a city like Providence; and in the weird world of poetry slam.
Chrysanthemum, who’s a trans woman, has been on my mind since I started this column, so I was excited to see a text from her after my July column came out.
“I love your interrogation of science vs. myths forged by anecdotes,” she wrote. “Of course I’ve never had anything in my life sync except my iTunes library, but there’s a huge culture of trans women on hormones claiming they experience period-like symptoms.” She talked about her fears about gender essentialism, internalized misogyny, and what she saw as “an immediate and uninterrogated dismissal of anything about periods” on the part of some other transfems.
After texting back and forth a bit, I asked if she would be interested in being interviewed for the column, and I was thrilled when she said yes. I called her on the second day of my August period. She picked up my FaceTime on the porch of the Rhode Island farmhouse she shares with her partner. We chatted for a while about therapy, open relationships, and our various escapades in woodsy gay corners of New England, as birds and cicadas made their sounds from somewhere in the trees above her. After catching up for a while, we got down to it.
“I’m not sure how popular what I say will be among other trans women and transfems…” she started.
“Oh, of course!” I said. “I mean, in no way am I interviewing you as, like, The Trans Woman. I’m interviewing you as Chrysanthemum.”
“Sure!” she said. “Well, recently, so many conversations about menstruation have become dictated by trans women. And there’s this continuous idea that something about menstruation is inherently transphobic…There’s a denial that some trans women express, a denial that biology does have some effect on how your physical reality is going to manifest.”
“I think… it’s a scary conversation for a lot of people to approach,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “But there is something about menstruation that is so taboo, and for trans women to stifle any talk about periods doesn’t serve anybody in the end.”
I heard my friend trying to reassure me that it was okay to write about menstruating; but rather than comforting me, it made me a little nervous.
“I hear you, and I appreciate that,” I said, “but it also does seem to me that yoking periods to womanhood, asking periods to be a symbol—that does feel trans-exclusive. Doesn’t it?”
Chrysanthemum paused, thinking. “In your work, how often do you approach womanhood with a symbol or an image that’s universal to all women?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I guess—I try not to,” I stumbled. “But also, we rely on symbols and metaphors because they’re bigger than ourselves, bigger than our own individual experiences.”
“I think, even if people are justifiably uncomfortable with equating periods to womanhood, it would be hard to deny that periods are still very much a gendered experience,” Chrysanthemum responded.
“This,” she went on, “is a way that sex and the body and physiology and medicine and business all come together. Imagine if those strings disappeared: would there be a way to approach menstruation as a non-gendered thing? Would it be a world without gender? Would it be that kind of utopian fantasy?”
What I heard Chrysanthemum speaking to was a difference between collapsing and connecting. That is, while brandishing menstruation as a stand-in for womanhood was certainly bad, attempting to leave gender out of it completely is, at the very least, a weird fantasy. And fantasy has high stakes for those whose status in America’s collective imagination remains precarious.
“Transition is something that requires a lot of fantasizing and dreaming. It’s—” She stopped suddenly. “Oh. I’m getting emotional.”
After a long pause, she went on.
“It’s trying to see the world for what it is, and knowing how cruel it can be, but how there must be glimpses of something worth living for,” she said. “When I transition, I’m trying to envision a future world that’s just like the world right now—I’m not asking for much. It can be this same world. But in this world, I’m not terrified by my reflection.”
The idea of the stakes of imagination work came up again later, as we were talking about how Chrysanthemum’s first year on hormones was going. She told me that she wasn’t experiencing any symptoms that she would identify as periods or PMS, aside from maybe crying a lot (“But doesn’t everybody?”).
Just before we’d gotten on the call, I’d been reading through articles on the subject of HRT-related period symptoms, including a number of TERF screeds about what constituted a “real” period. It struck me that having anything even proximate to a period—cramping, bloating, nausea, fatigue, mood swings—is a deeply visceral and affecting experience, whatever its origin point. Such an experience affects the way one looks at the world and relates to one’s own body. It becomes another language with which to understand one’s life, the power of which isn’t, I think, diminished by the fact that this language may accented, or a pidgin, or inherited through a violent history.
“Sometimes, I really do sympathize with this need to narrativize what you’re experiencing,” Chrysanthemum said on the subject. “It’s not exclusive to trans women—people make tremendous claims about bodies all the time. I’m having a heat flash. Oh my god, is that a migraine coming on? There are a lot of things that help us make sense of the moment we live in.”
A man started shouting in the alley by my apartment, filling my office with his loud, rhythmic announcements. I closed the window to muffle the noise.
“I would remind people that there are trans people that experience periods, too,” added Chrysanthemum. “There are intersex people who experience periods. And menstruation and the taboos around it are still a trans issue. The concern should be about how trans and intersex people navigate a healthcare system that already views their bodies as illegible.”
As the sun set, we talked about Jane Fonda and Ivanka Trump, about cultural appropriation and future alien historians and the lost political origins of the term “Asian American.” Suddenly, I was sad about the years I’d spent apart from Chrysanthemum, from all of my writer friends in Rhode Island. I missed Charlotte and Laura and Muggs and everyone else whose thinking had, for years, helped grow my thinking.
I asked: “What do you think it looks like for cis and trans women to reach towards each other in good, solidarity-building ways?”
“It can happen nominally,” she said, “but actually, it has to begin with genuine, realistic, safe relationships between cis women and trans women. And it’s really easy to think that there needs to be something that binds them together as women.” But what was it? And, if it turns out there’s no common binding thing—what then?
It reminded me of what it’s like to try to build a political identity across the wide swaths of peoples we call Asian and Pacific Islander Americans—who share no common language, religion, immigration history, food, etc. It’s always seemed to me to be the most difficult and the most beautiful thing about APIA organizing—the challenge to make an us out of a community where nothing can stand in to represent the whole.
“If I want to build toward liberation with you, I don’t think it serves me to say, ‘You shouldn’t say that, because it doesn’t affect me.’” said Chrysanthemum. “It affects a lot of people. It doesn’t affect me. And that’s okay.”
“But also, like, I care about you!” she said. “If you were bleeding out of an orifice and it was causing you pain, like, yeah, I think I’m a nice person—I’d want to console you! And likewise, there are different things that I could talk to you about, that you might not be able to relate to. But I love complaining. And I’m down.”
We talked for a while longer. The sky behind Chrysanthemum was getting dark; the birds, quieter. We decided it was probably time to hang up.
“Can I ask you one last thing?” said Chrysanthemum. “What’s your period like?”
“Oh!” I said. “It’s okay!”
I told her about my new menstrual cup (I’ve been trying out a MeLuna in the “Sport” firmness level). She talked about her tuck (“It’s basically shoving things up into a cup-shaped orifices and making sure nothing leaks.”). We compared the sensitivity of our boobs. The man in the alley stopped shouting and went off to wherever his next stop was.
“Okay, well I love you,” said Chrysanthemum. “Thanks for being vulnerable with me.”
“I love you too!” I said.
“ILY. LYLAS!” she said—shorthand, of course, for “Love You Like A Sister.”
I laughed and waved. “LYLAS!” I said.