First Person Periods

As an intersex person living as a male, I just want my periods to end”

8 min read

I live as a male, completely aware of what women go through on a monthly basis.

I was raised as a boy until the age of nine, when I started having chronic pain in my abdomen. I’d looked like a perfectly normal male when I was born, but after some investigation they realised that I had a uterus and one internal functioning ovary. At that point in time, in the late 60s, the medical convention was that intersex people were made to live as women. They had to open the vagina, because the pains I was having were due to my body trying to menstruate. What had happened to me was that in the womb, my labia had fused closed, hence the appearance of ambiguous genitalia. I had one functional ovary and one functional testis – I’m XXY chromosome.

When I was nine they did a labiaplasty, which created a bit of labia that was relatively OK to look at, but I still had what they call a micropenis, and a testis with a little bit of a scrotum. Their recommendation was that I would have to live as a female, that that was the only option medically and that if I didn’t my life expectancy would be shortened. They didn’t really know what they were talking about back then – that was the conventional wisdom of the time. So I started to live as a female.

My body is insensitive to testosterone and at that time there wasn’t synthetic testosterone available, so I was producing oestrogen and I grew up as a teenage female. Kids of that age adapt quite quickly, but nine was young even for a female to start menstruation. As any female would say, you get used to it and you suffer it. For me it was difficult because I couldn’t use liners – I was a little bit different down there, if you know what I mean, so I was using tampons from a very early age. They were not what they are today, and I didn’t enjoy that.

The balance of your hormones defines everything that you do, more or less. It defines your periods, your moods, even your body type

I lived as a female and went to school as a female, and not many people knew my issues because I went to a new school. But at the age of 17 or 18, it got more difficult. I had been raised as a boy and I couldn’t ever really get into boys. I used to be told – and this was the late 70s, early 80s – you’ll have to be a “normal woman”. I tried to have a boyfriend and all that, and I tried to have sex even though I couldn’t get into it.

By this point they were trying to push me to undergo some castration. I delayed it like hell, because you do – and I’m not good with any operations. And being told, “Your destiny is to be a wife and a mother,” that scared me. It felt fairly rigid. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy being female, it was just that I couldn’t fulfil that stereotype. As a child you want to try to please your parents and all that sort of thing, and I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to be a wife. Sex scared me and getting pregnant scared me. I wouldn’t have been able to have a normal pregnancy – it would’ve been a caesarean. So basically, at the age of 18 or 19, I decided that I was going to live as a male again.

By that time they had developed synthetic testosterone, which I could take, and that made me look a little bit more male, although I still had a uterus and a functional ovary. My issue was that I was still menstruating. Taking testosterone won’t actually stop that, so I’ve always been in conflict with my hormones. As an intersex person you get what they call an endocrinologist – a hormone specialist – and they try to manage your hormones. The balance of your hormones defines everything that you do, more or less. It defines your periods, your moods, even your body type. So you don’t want to get the balance wrong. I used to mix and match so that I didn’t get too much of the female side, but if I took too much progestogen, which can stop the periods a bit, that means your breasts get larger and your arse and hips get larger. Obviously I was trying to live as a male, so that wasn’t a particularly good thing and I had to stop taking them.

Eventually I got to the point where I was looking male enough that I’d been successful at getting married and we had kids. I felt if I could have a hysterectomy and no more periods, life would be fine. But unfortunately at a young age they don’t do that. You’ve got cases of women who’ve had hysterectomies at an early age and they would have to have some sort of hormone replacement therapy, because you need natural hormones to maintain all sorts of body functions. Humans who are devoid of both testosterone and oestrogen slowly become very ill and have many issues. To this day, the prevailing advice is that they want me to keep the functioning ovary for as long as possible, so that it keeps producing natural hormones.

I’ve been having periods from the age of 9, and I’m now in my early 50s. By any calculation I’ve probably had more periods than most human beings on the planet. They are now planning a hysterectomy, but it’ll be what they call a vaginal hysterectomy, which is a little bit less complex than a normal female hysterectomy, but more complex internally because they have to support the internal bits afterwards. So as not to prolapse, the ideal situation would be that they use a mesh, but it’s been outlawed in the UK. So it is complex.

I’m dealing with normal life as a male but also having to go to the doctors to have cervical smears

In the last five years, I’ve developed a condition called endometriosis. I’ve been told that it’s normal for a female to be in pain, and that’s obviously what I just accepted because I’m not a normal female, so how do I know? I just assumed I wasn’t coping with it as well as normal women. But I’ve had five years of absolute hassle. I mean, one would hope even if one has to suffer periods, you have a cycle and it’s nice and planned, and you can work your cycle out and know when it’s going to happen. With endometriosis any cycle goes up the wall, periods can last 10 – 15 days, and the wait in between can be a week. And obviously at night it gets worse. You wake up and you think you’re in a murder scene.

Living as a male and going to work as a male, and having those sorts of issues, they aren’t things that have brought me much joy. For a woman, periods are a sign of fertility that we celebrate. But as an intersex person living as a male, I just want to bring it to an end. And you’re fighting against the medical profession, which says that you’ve got to sort of man up and deal with it. People say, “Why don’t you just take a contraceptive and stop the periods?” but unfortunately all of the contraceptives are the wrong type of hormones. You have all the side effects I don’t want – it doesn’t do much for me as a bloke to start lactating.

My intersex condition is so rare that every other person I’m aware of in the UK who has it lives as a woman

I’m probably more aware than most people living as men of the hassles surrounding periods and I find it strange that we don’t discuss it. It’s a fairly taboo subject even within close circles of women. I think, “For God’s sake, why don’t we sort out these issues?” but I find that women themselves aren’t even talking about it.

I think this comes from society and parents – no matter what generation, there’s a feeling that it’s dirty or unclean. It doesn’t get explained correctly to young girls and it doesn’t really get explained to boys at all. There’s not enough about how periods are perfectly normal, something that should be celebrated and there shouldn’t be any sort of worry about it. I have so much reassurance that period poverty and all these things are becoming mainstream, even the tampon tax and the plastic applicators – God knows how many of those I’ve chucked away! With all the campaigns that are going on now, guys should start thinking “what’s all this plastic applicator stuff about?” and “why do you need organic tampons?”. And accepting the fact that women are struggling with this on a daily basis and are hiding it from men.

I’m probably not as ashamed of having periods as I was, but it’s something that I don’t discuss with many people, and definitely not with a male. Menstruation is a part of human biology and it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but there is a taboo about being someone who lives as a male who menstruates. If I need a tampon urgently and I have to go and buy one, you get a smile from people, you know, you must be buying that for your daughter or your girlfriend or wife. You can’t openly say, well actually it’s for me. If I go in to talk to a chemist because I’ve got thrush or something, which occasionally one gets, it’s very difficult. I’m dealing with normal life as a male but also having to go to the doctors to have cervical smears and all that. When you turn up at the hospital and they see that you’re male, they have to check their records. You see the look on their faces.

I’ve cut myself off from talk of periods in a way because once I’d decided that I was going to live as a male, one isolates oneself. Women at work obviously didn’t know that I’d been female, therefore wouldn’t talk to me about it. So you distance yourself from it. Not to mention that my mother hated talking about that sort of stuff anyway, because she didn’t cope with the whole thing very well. I have had my wife, my partner and a few other people who I can talk to, but there was a period of about 10 years when I felt I couldn’t talk to anyone and I sort of pretended it wasn’t happening. Of course now you’ve got the internet.

My intersex condition is so rare that every other person I’m aware of in the UK who has it lives as a woman. Most of the developed world, if there’s an intersex baby, will chop. So there are a fair few women living with intersex conditions, and who live a fairly normal life as a woman. Some of them will have fertility problems, and in fact lot of women won’t find out they’re intersex until they have fertility problems.

There isn’t much benefit to being intersex. I’ve had the worst of both, and I didn’t really get the best of both

It’s very rare to find an intersex person who is living as a male. I’ve found one person, in Canada, who’s got a functional ovary and a functional testis like me. You look on the internet and you start to find each other, but there’s not many of us. So it’s a unique perspective. Intersex people are very quiet, they live in silence. You don’t go around telling everyone, because there’s still shame about being a bit of both. And if you go on Twitter then inevitably you get a load of abuse. So you shut up, you know, you just stay quiet about it.

There isn’t much benefit to being intersex. I’ve had the worst of both, and I didn’t really get the best of both. If I’d gone down the route of living as a female, then I suppose it wouldn’t have been so difficult. But at that age and that time in our social history, it wasn’t an option. Back then one didn’t consider that I could’ve been a female and just been a lesbian. Looking back that’s a route that was open, but that I didn’t go down.

A lot of people won’t even be told that they’re intersex – they’ll just be told that they’re having fertility problems because they have an internal testicle that can be removed or whatever. In a way it might be better if they’d known when I was born instead of finding out later. But then maybe I wouldn’t have the children I have had. One can never look back and wonder.

This is the latest article in our series about what it’s really like to have periods. If you’d like to share your experiences with us, get in touch at jelphick@calla.ly. Illustration by Louise Zergaeng Pomeroy.
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