I spent my late teens running away from home, meeting trans youth and discovering the work of queer artists like Kate Bornstein and Leslie Feinberg, who gave language to the transgressive gender feelings I’d hidden all my life. Eventually, I claimed the identity of genderqueer (a term the Merriam-Webster Dictionary included alongside cisgender and the non-binary honorific Mx in 2016 ). For me gender has always been a fluid journey including many identities and forms of presentation. As part of that journey I began injecting the hormone Testosterone to alter my physical body: it deepened my voice, shifted my silhouette, and gave me facial hair. Over the next couple of years I would go on and off of Testosterone a few times before quitting permanently in my early-mid 20s.
Despite the increase of non-binary representations in the media, living in a non-binary body altered by hormone usage can be very isolating. There are very few representations of temporary hormone usage beyond very occasional sensationalized, generally transphobic articles talking about someone who “detransitioned.” The subject can make people uncomfortable. I wrote my first novel Roving Pack about the experience of being abandoned by trans friends when I quit Testosterone. Cisgender people and binary transgender people alike often shame genderqueer/non-binary people for using hormones temporarily and identifying outside of the gender binary. To break down some of the misconceptions and stigma, I spoke with other queerly gendered people about what brought them to using Testosterone (or “T” as many of us call it) to alter our bodies, and what they hope the larger queer community will understand about our lives/bodies/identities:
Michel Fitos, a queer femme in Somerville, Massachusetts, explaining why they had gone on and then off of hormones, said: “I wanted to experience the body changes that go along with hormones, and see if that made me feel more or less like my idea of myself” Similarly, Evan Smith, a genderqueer Niizh-Manidoowag Two-Spirit person in Toronto, said: “I started using testosterone because I felt unhappy in my body.” Danno, a genderqueer/genderfluid individual from Southern/Central Oregon explained that they “started hormones because I was experiencing dysphoria and knew hormones could help alleviate that. What I wanted most was top surgery, but it didn’t feel accessible financially and as someone who didn’t identify as 100% male.” Aeryne James in Oakland, CA commented: “I started getting into trans studies and then questioning my own gender near the end of college (2000-2001). I was genderqueer at this time but I didn’t know the word for it then. After college, I moved to Maine and started working. I had a really hard time there, and I felt so much anxiety living as a dyke who was queerly gendered in a pretty normative and conservative environment.”
As part of my gender journey, I went on and off of Testosterone twice as I transitioned through different gender presentations including butch, and trans man, in my late teens and early twenties, ultimately landing on a queer femme as a presentation that has most consistently worked for me, and through all of these presentations I utilized T on and off. James, who was on Testosterone for twelve years, made the decision to quit using Testosterone as the nation’s political climate shifted: “After the 2016 election, I really thought a lot about my values and realized that the most important thing to me was my visible queer identity and being a genderqueer dyke in a hugely fucked up patriarchy where a rapist can be elected president of the US.”
Although the decision to physically transition using hormones is extremely personal, many of us felt a pressure to protect the community, and to not do anything that would reflect poorly on other trans people, including not talking about our fluid/non-binary identities. “The majority of the trans community turned their backs on me. I lost almost my entire community overnight.” Smith remembered. About their community’s response, Fitos said: “They were supportive of my decision to start hormones, very uncomfortable when I did not go all the way to binary manhood, and have been largely uncomfortable as I have swung back toward the femme direction. Many people now do not believe that I have a had any experience as any gender other than the one that I appear to have.”
When I was on and off of Testosterone, other trans people were very concerned/threatened by my decision to stop hormone usage and about how they perceived it could reflect on them and how their identities were understood. “It’s incredibly difficult and scary to talk about with people in the world because we’re just barely at a point where some people are ok with recognizing the validity of transgender experiences in the first place. I have a real fear of confirming cis people’s suspicions about the illegitimacy of trans people, and about coming across as wishy washy or mentally unstable and not taken seriously” James observed.
Doctors and other medical providers remain the legal gatekeepers to legally accessing hormones. Although many providers are shifting towards a “informed consent” model where anyone who requests Testosterone and understands the potential side effects can get a prescription, historically access to Testosterone has been restricted to individuals who claim a binary male identity. “The first time around, my therapist had advised we lie about my being non-binary and present myself as a trans man. The second round, I was open with both my therapist and my endocrinologist about being non-binary, specifically genderqueer, and they supported me in my decision to continue T. I think things had begun to open up in that gap of time – especially with the recognition in adding the new gender marker option “X” on DMV cards in our state [Oregon],” Danno remembered.
In the not too distant past (and still in some areas) not conforming to the medical community’s idea of the appropriate transgender narrative could have dire consequences around access to hormones. “I had settled into a space where I became very comfortable with my gender being more fluid,” said Smith. “However, on one occasion, I went in to see my doctor and get a refill on my Testosterone. She told me to hold on for a second and left the room to go speak to someone. When she came back, she informed me that I was ‘too feminine presenting’ and that she wasn’t going to refill my prescription because ‘it could start a lawsuit’ if I regretted hormones and ‘that would jeopardize everyone else who [was] receiving hormone therapy.’ I only had one shot left at home. I took it and then was forced to quit hormones cold turkey. Within a couple of weeks I got my period and bled for three months non-stop. It was exhausting and the whole time I felt like I had no control over my body.”
While there aren’t serious health concerns about going on and off of Testosterone, we need medical providers to take our identities, and our bodies seriously. Transitioned bodies are not the same as a cisgender man or a cisgender woman’s body. “Hormones or not, I still live in a transitioned body which makes my existence in the world not always feel safe. Trans-only space allows me a place where my body will not be gawked at and where I can talk to other people about what physical transitions do to our bodies.” Smith continued. Queer and Trans people are mistreated and misdiagnosed everyday by homophobic/transphobic medical providers, but even well meaning providers are often undereducated with the realities of transitioned bodies that don’t conform to a binary narrative of hormone usage. For example, even ten years after quitting injecting Testosterone, I shave my face daily and could grow a full beard. For the last decade, even at an LGBTQ community health clinic I was repeatedly misdiagnosed by healthcare providers as having PCOS because of my facial hair. It wasn’t until last year that I found a healthcare provider who would actually listen and take into account the possible long-term impacts of my history of hormone usage when looking at my body.
As we continue to push for a broader and more expansive understanding of gender, we must embrace a wider understanding of gendered journeys. “It was also over the last few years that I have learned more from my Indigenous Elders about what it means to be a Two-Spirit person,” Smith said. “I embody a range of genders and carry traditional teachings from all genders which enables me to do healing work in my communities. Letting go of the colonial gender binary has allowed me to settle comfortably into a space where my gender is more fluid than it ever has been. Though I present more on the male/butch end of the spectrum now, I am read as both male and female and use many pronouns interchangeably.”
While not all genderqueer or non-binary people use hormones to alter their bodies, those of us who I’ve spoken with are very clear that our lived experiences are part of a broader expansive conversation of gender embodiment, and not a “de-transition.” Similarly, our experiences of fluid hormone use shouldn’t ever be utilized to limit access to hormones for other people. “Everyone should be entitled to physically alter their bodies to match their gender, and access to hormones and surgeries should be readily available. There are always going to be people who regret that decision-just like people who regret non-gender related plastic surgery, tattoos, or the color they dyed their hair. That shouldn’t restrict other people’s access.” Smith explained.
Smith continued: “For a long time I believed that I had ‘detransitioned,’ but what had actually happened was I had ‘transitioned further.’ We need to continue to challenge the Western colonial version of the gender binary and make sure that there is space for folks whose gender transition is not as clear as was once expected of trans people. I know for myself, I don’t regret hormones or surgery. They were some of the best decisions I have ever made.”