At the first National Period Day rally in Chicago, more than a hundred supporters gathered at Federal Plaza to champion better access to menstrual products and an end to the social stigma that often surrounds menstruation.
Among the sea of handmade signs dotting the crowd, at least one specifically highlighted the menstrual needs of transgender and other nonbinary folks — a group often overlooked in the movement to make tampons, sanitary pads and other menstrual hygiene items available to everyone who needs them.
“Not all women menstruate and not all menstruators are women,” read a poster decorated with a rainbow-colored heart at the demonstration, one of about four-dozen similar rallies held across the country Oct. 19.
As the crusade for what’s often termed “menstrual equity” gains momentum nationwide, activists and lawmakers — and even major corporations — are focusing on those who might not identify as women but still get a period.
To be more inclusive of transgender and nonbinary customers, Procter & Gamble Company last month said it would be removing the Venus symbol — a circle and cross typically representing womanhood and the female sex — from the wrappers of Always sanitary pads.
“For over 35 years Always has championed girls and women, and we will continue to do so,” the company said in a statement. “We’re also committed to diversity and inclusion and are on a continual journey to understand the needs of all of our consumers.”
The switch spurred a heated discussion on social media, sparking some confusion as well as vitriol, with occasional comments threatening to boycott the brand.
Many others applauded the company’s choice.
“I’m one of those menstruating trans men,” one Twitter user responded. “Yep! I do, in fact, still have a cycle every five to six weeks. I was just talking about wanting to see more fun designs. Like dinosaurs. Or wolves. Or darker colors.”
Earlier this year, an Illinois bill attempted to require school districts statewide to provide free menstrual hygiene products in “each bathroom of every school building,” which would include boys’ restrooms.
The bill, which stalled in committee, was decried by the conservative Illinois Family Institute.
“To be clear, the ‘menstruating boys’ are confused girls who masquerade as boys,” read a post on the organization’s website in February. “Leftist lawmakers believe we the people and our taxes should be forced to subsidize their confusion and masquerades.”
State Rep. Barbara Hernandez, D-Aurora, said she plans to pursue legislation addressing the issue again in the spring session. Illinois in 2017 passed the Learn with Dignity Act, which requires no-cost tampons and pads in restrooms in schools, but the language doesn’t specifically stipulate that all bathrooms must dispense these items.
“Denying access to feminine hygiene products to anyone who needs them is denying a basic human right,” Hernandez said.
For several years, activists and organizations across the country have called for more affordable access to menstrual products, from tax-free tampons and pads to free hygiene items in schools, shelters and prisons. The Period Collective and the Chicago Period Project are two local nonprofits that help supply the products for those who cannot afford them. More states, including Illinois, have repealed state sales tax on tampons, menstrual pads and similar products.
A St. Louis University study earlier this year found that nearly two-thirds of low-income women surveyed couldn’t afford pads or tampons at some point in the previous year and 21% lacked supplies monthly. Almost half, 46%, couldn’t afford to buy both food and hygiene products during the past year.
Recently, more groups and activists have been extending this focus on menstrual equity to include those who are transgender or gender nonconforming.
Various universities across the country have begun dispensing no-cost tampons and sanitary pads in gender-neutral and men’s bathrooms. At New York University, a 2016 student-led petition for free hygiene products in all university restrooms gained more than 3,000 signatures.
“What’s more, menstruating students who use men’s restrooms may not find anyone in the bathroom they are comfortable asking,” the petition said. “To ensure that all students feel safe using the bathroom consistent with their gender identity there must be access to free (menstrual hygiene products) in all university bathrooms.”
New York University now offers free menstrual products in many restrooms and offices across campus.
At Loyola University Chicago, the group Students for Reproductive Justice has been stocking men’s restrooms on campus — as well as gender-neutral bathrooms and those for women — with free products for about two years.
But the project has faced some backlash, including vandalism of menstrual hygiene products in the men’s and gender-neutral bathrooms. A video went viral last month that appeared to depict a man throwing out menstrual products. The university says it is still investigating the incident.
Since then, members of Students for Reproductive Justice said they’ve seen an increase in tampering with the items.
“They would end up on the mirrors, in the sinks, down the toilet, and completely thrown out,” representatives of the student group said in an email, adding that posters related to the initiative were also vandalized. “Products have been going missing more frequently and we have found posters with trans-phobic language on them.”
As for the recent Period Day event in Chicago, organizers were very conscious of the gender identity dynamic, striving to “limit our use of she/her pronouns, and say ‘people who menstruate’ instead of women,” said lead rally coordinator and northwest suburban Prospect High School student Mary Catherine Hanafee LaPlante.
One speaker was 13-year-old Molly Pinta, an LGBTQ activist who made headlines when she brought the first Pride Parade to Buffalo Grove in June.
She discussed how anyone who gets a period needs access to menstrual products.
“I think it needs to be more normalized — not just at period events, but in daily life — that not just women get periods,” Pinta said in a phone interview.
She added that gender-neutral and men’s restrooms should also be equipped with trash receptacles inside stalls so menstrual products can be discarded hygienically and discretely, just like in women’s restrooms.
“You shouldn’t have to hide a tampon in your sleeve,” she said. “It’s a natural body function, you shouldn’t have to hide it.”
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