How to address girls and/or people with periods as a group in an inclusive and trans-friendly way

Cassian
16 min readMar 20, 2023

I recently saw an ad in a local WhatsApp group promoting a regular social for young females navigating the challenges of adolescence. “Female” as a noun for humans gives me the hibbly jibblies, because it’s pretty much exclusively used by people who see women as a commodity.

Gender and language is something I’m really interested in so I may have waded in a little bit, and after some rambling around someone brought up that the group was aiming to support girls and young women specifically with regard to their periods.

Someone suggested “people with periods” as a more fitting descriptor than “females”, and then they DMed me to add,

But actually it’s equally important not to marginalize girl or woman as identities which people feel attached to and proud of and encompass more than menstrual cycles. So maybe girls/people with periods is the best fit.

I was too tired at the time to get into it, and I’m tired now too. I’m tired of cisgender people coming up with stuff like this, and approaching it as though sharing privilege means giving up your own. But I also understand that people are just doing their best with what they know. So, my goal here is to provide a minimally-judgemental resource that covers this one specific question from the very beginning.

Here’s a summary of the section titles:

  • What is marginalisation?
  • How does that apply to women and girls?
  • If women and girls are marginalised, are they marginalised in every context?
  • Does removing “women/girls” from the name of the group marginalise women and girls outside of that context?
  • So anyway, which people are marginalised in “people who have periods”?
  • “Women/girls and people with periods”
  • What should we say instead?
  • Option 1: Anatomy-first
  • Option 2: Gender-first
  • Option 3: Hybrid
  • Which way is best?

What is marginalisation?

It’s quite a conveniently visual and intuitive word. To marginalise someone (or a group of people) is to push them out to the margins of society. That’s the edges, the blurred space where it’s not clear whether someone does or doesn’t get included in a group. People in the margins are less visible or invisible, their voices are not heard, etc.

The people who do the pushing are the dominant or more numerous group. They benefit from this process by gaining power over those they marginalise. Sometimes they’re doing it consciously and purposefully, and sometimes they don’t realise that they’re supporting and upholding systems that do it for them.

I feel like if you’re reading this article then you probably already know this stuff, but it’s always good to make sure you’re on the same page to reduce confusion later on!

Title: What is marginalisation? Diagram. Large circle. In the centre of the circle, large text: the “privileged”, the dominant subsection, the ones with more power and a louder voice, you know what i mean. Just within the circle’s outline, another dotted line to separate out a margin on the edge of the circle. This is labelled: the margins. Explanatory text for that label: may be fewer in number, or may be pushed out to the margins by the privileged.

This model is repeated in a lot of ways. A well-known example: in a lot of the world, white people (sometimes unknowingly) benefit from their historic and current oppression of people of colour. That benefit is called privilege, and it means that within the societal system people of colour have less power, agency, money, health, etc. and their rights are much more likely to be denied than white people’s.

How does that apply to women and girls?

This diagram can be adapted to express society’s attitude to gender:

Title: Society in general. Diagram. Large circle with two outer rings. Centre of the circle is largest and is marked: cis men and cis boys (because of the patriarchy). Next ring out is labelled: cis women and cis girls. Next ring out after that is labelled: trans people.

Which is to say: in a lot of the world, men and boys (sometimes unknowingly) benefit from their historic and current oppression of women and girls. Generally, within the societal system women and girls have less power, agency, money, health, etc. and their rights are much more likely to be denied. This is the case even though the sizes of the two groups are approximately equal. Additionally, cisgender people are generally privileged over trans people regardless of gender.

TL;DR: Yes, even though there are about as many women/girls as there are men/boys, women and girls are still pushed out towards the margins of society relative to the privileged group. Women and girls are marginalised.

If women and girls are marginalised, are they marginalised in every context?

If you are talking about the group “people who have periods”, it is plain to see that cis women and cis girls outnumber all other groups by a long way. Additionally, as mentioned in the previous section, cis people are generally privileged over trans people. Cisgender women and girls are the dominant subsection of this group.

If you refer to the group as “people who have periods”, the idea that people might not realise that cisgender women and girls might be included is absurd. In the group of period-having people, cis women and cis girls are usually the only group who are visible. This is an expression of their privilege within that group.

So no, within the group “people who have periods”, cisgender women and girls are not marginalised.

Does removing “women/girls” from the name of the group marginalise women and girls outside of that context?

There is a school of thought that young girls will feel erased or degendered if they hear the name of a group that they’re a part of and the word “girl” is omitted.

I do not know where this idea comes from. I have seen nothing whatsoever to back it up.

Without data we’d have to ask the girls and young women who are in your group how they feel about inclusive language. We don’t have any specific data on that, but we do have a lot of data that says that younger people are more likely to identify as something genderly-interesting, are more likely to know someone else who is genderly-interesting, are more likely to validate and support trans people and trans rights, are more likely to say that a nonbinary person has a right to be offended if someone misgenders them, are more likely to think that gender-inclusive language should be taught about in school, and are more likely to claim they/them pronouns and neopronouns for themselves. We even have data showing that women are more likely than men to support trans inclusion and trans rights.

I’ve seen nothing about girls feeling marginalised by “people with periods” phrasing, aside from adults expressing… concern? But extrapolating from the statistical data we do have, kids and teens are more likely than adults to support trans people, and that includes supporting trans-inclusive language.

Phrasing like “people with periods” may not be easy for women and girls who associate periods with girlhood/womanhood, because it’s reminiscent of ubiquitous sexist objectification. This is totally understandable, your reaction is entirely justified — and it’s not easy to explain how “people with periods” is basically the inverse of that. The best I’ve got is, when a group called “people with periods” has people of all genders in it, it becomes more clear that womanhood/girlhood are greater and more complex than anatomy and bodily functions. It’s the objectification process in reverse, right? Instead of, for example, taking a person and irrelevantly and inappropriately reducing her to her child-bearing ability, we’re starting with the very relevant anatomical feature and then making it personal by humanising and empowering diverse people who happen to share it.

[But doesn’t all of this reasoning apply to “female” as a noun, e.g.: “a group for females”? Yes, that’s right — but “female” is also an adjective for “woman/girl”, and so transmasculine people generally do not usually describe themselves that way, and would feel very uncomfortable being described as such. For this reason, trans men/boys and nonbinary people who were assigned female at birth would be unlikely to attend a group aimed at “females” even though they are probably the target audience. Plus, for some intersex people, it might not be clear to them whether or not they are female, or they may feel that they are not fully female, etc.]

If you’re in any doubt, speak to your target audience — the kids you’ll be inviting. How do the cis girls, trans boys, and nonbinary and intersex kids want you to describe the group? “It’s a group for talking about periods. Who should we say is invited, in a way that’s clear and inclusive and not uncomfortable for anyone?” If you have negative associations with phrasing like “people with periods” then that’s totally understandable — but do you know for sure that the kids you’re inviting share those negative associations and feel uncomfortable attending? Will your avoidance of anatomy-first phrasing prevent or reinforce those associations in their minds? If you call the group “females” or “girls” or “young people with periods”, how do the trans boys and nonbinary kids feel? How do their cisgender girl friends feel? If you only reference gender, how do the cis girls feel about their trans friends being excluded?

So anyway, which people are marginalised in “people who have periods”?

There’s a bunch of people who aren’t cisgender women/girls, who do have periods, and within the group “people with periods” they’re usually either uncomfortably assumed to be women/girls, or they’re erased. In this context, erasure might look something like: group organisers see someone self-selecting into the group, assume they don’t have periods and there must have been some kind of mistake, and then passive-aggressively ignore them in discussions, “forget” to send them event reminders, or kick them out. This includes but is probably not limited to:

  • Trans men/boys. They were assigned female at birth but they’re not girls/women. They might’ve had periods in the past but not anymore, they might have some/all/none of the uterus/vagina/ovaries set-up, they might “pass” as boys/men and they might not, etc.
  • Nonbinary people. Some nonbinary people were assigned female at birth, and a subset of them may partially, completely, sometimes or always be something other than girls/women. All the same stuff in the bullet point about trans men/boys also applies here.
  • Intersex people. I should mention that this isn’t my area at all, but some intersex people have periods and aren’t women/girls, and/or don’t consider themselves cisgender, and/or may have primary and/or secondary sex characteristics that aren’t congruous with periods.

Obviously, there are also a lot of women and girls who don’t menstruate, and of those, some of them never have and never will. (Trans girls/women, pre-pubertal girls, post-menopausal women, some girls/women on various hormone treatments for various reasons, some intersex girls/women, women/girls with conditions that prevent menstruation, anyone who’s had a hysterectomy for reasons within or without their control…)

So let’s roll all of that into a tidy diagram.

Caption of last part, for those using screen-readers: In addition to the usual struggles of puberty, the trans teens are probably also struggling with gender dysphoria caused by going through “the wrong puberty” or, if they’re lucky, having their puberty frozen with blockers for 6–8 years while their peers go through it naturally.

“Women/girls and people with periods”

This phrasing and phrasing like it is often suggested by well-meaning people (as well as bad faith internet bigots) as a compromise that validates the genders of cis women and cis girls in the face of wider societal marginalisation, while also including trans people, nonbinary people and intersex people in “people”.

Something like it was suggested by the person who DMed me on WhatsApp, and it wasn’t the first time I’ve seen it. I have some difficulty endorsing it, for the following reasons:

  • This phrasing includes girls who don’t have periods (e.g. trans girls), which, if you’re intentionally referring to the group “people who have periods”, is probably not what you want to do.
  • It poses girls as a group separate from people. It literally implies that girls are not people. In order to avoid degendering the girls with periods, you would rather dehumanise them? Is that feminist? I don’t get it! How is excluding the words “girl” and “woman” a grave harm, but putting girls and women outside of the group “people” a negligible and harmless act? That is deeply inconsistent.
  • It explicitly names the subgroup who are dominant within the group “people who have periods”, while not naming any of the marginalised groups. Prioritising the privileged group(s) while further marginalising the oppressed/othered/invisible group(s) is… I don’t know, if you don’t already realise that that’s not good then I don’t know what else to tell you.
  • If we assume that “girls/women and people with periods” is not dehumanising, if you want to refer to people who have periods and you are naming girls and women specifically, you are defining women and girls by their reproductive organs. This is also known as objectification, something that feminism opposes.

So, in summary, it is inaccurate, reinforces oppressive norms, and it dehumanises and objectifies the people you are trying to protect and empower.

Feminists have been fighting for quite a while now to make sure that women and girls are seen as equal in personhood and rights to men and boys. They’ve also been fighting for women and girls to not be defined by their reproductive organs. Visibility of women and girls in the face of oppression is extremely important, but… not like this, folks.

What should we say instead?

So you have a group that is specifically about education and support for young people getting their first periods. That’s very legit and okay.

How you should describe your target audience depends on who you’re referring to and why. Ultimately, I don’t have the correct words for you. I don’t know who you want to invite (or not invite) to your group, so if I give you some generic words and you repeat them, there’s a chance someone will be excluded who shouldn’t be. But maybe some of this waffling will help you to come up with something that works.

And yeah, maybe you don’t 100% know all the ins and outs of this stuff, and maybe you will make assumptions that someone might need to correct, and that’s okay! People sometimes just don’t know stuff until they do. Give it a bash, and adjust it as you go until it’s good enough.

Maybe this diagram might help?

I think it basically boils down to:

  • Option 1: Anatomy-first. “People who have or will have periods.” If you want to be inclusive while educating kids about periods, you have to stick to anatomical description (and not make gender part of the criteria).
  • Option 2: Gender-first. “Girls, young women, and feminine young people.” If you want to be inclusive while providing a group for girls as a marginalised group, you have to stick to group members’ societal and personal experiences of their own genders (and omit anatomy from the criteria).
  • Option 3: Hybrid. “Everyone except cisgender boys/men.” Invite all girls (trans and cis), and also anyone who has or expects to have periods.

Option 1: Anatomy-first

Several options here, depending on how explicitly gender-inclusive or holistically person-acknowledging you want to be:

  • Young people [who menstruate/with periods]
  • Young people of all genders [who menstruate/with periods]
  • Girls, boys and young nonbinary and intersex people [who menstruate/with periods] (grammatically awkward, clarification may be needed — are all boys and girls invited, or just the ones who menstruate?)
  • Variations are fine — but if you specify any genders in the description, you should specify all genders, or we’re erasing and marginalising people of particular genders again

I’m gonna start with the heavy stuff, just because I think it’s not possible to be too upfront about it, but keep reading because it’s not all bad.

If you make a group for people who have or who expect to have periods, there is no way to avoid trans boys and nonbinary people having to out themselves to attend. When you’re not trans it’s hard to imagine how intrusive and uncomfortable it can be to have to reveal that you’re trans out of necessity and before you’re ready. Coming out isn’t a one-time event and it continues over and over again for the rest of your life, but it’s always an extremely vulnerable act, and handling it as an experienced and emotionally mature adult is very different from going through it as a child or young adult.

If those kids don’t want to out themselves, which is very fair, they will lose access to a valuable community and shared experience just by being trans. There is nothing you can do about that, and it’s just a thing that really sucks about being trans. It’s not going to change until it gets safe enough for trans people that they can come out completely without consequence, which realistically is not going to happen for several generations.

Having said that, Option 1 is not automatically a bad idea. It may be possible to foster an environment where coming out is very safe, and the benefits of being part of the group are worth the risks and downsides of coming out. If you feel you are able to curate this in your group, you are part of the solution. Society should be safe enough for trans boys and nonbinary people to come out and admit, for example, that they have periods! And one day it probably will be. If you can attain that in your small part of the world, that’s kind of incredible — it will make a huge difference to a lot of young trans people’s lives, and it will be a vital step on the way to a world that is safe for trans people.

Option 2: Gender-first

Trans boys and nonbinary kids who were assigned female at birth and some intersex kids will be excluded, but that’s okay because it’s not actually a group about anything anatomical anyway.

Some girls will probably talk about their own periods informally with each other, and trans and intersex girls can navigate that however they want, but it’s probably a good idea to frequently place heavy emphasis on privacy and consent. Affirm with your group that no one has to talk about their anatomy or bodily functions if they don’t want to, that if someone says “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that” then you shouldn’t ever push them hard enough that they have to say it more than once, and if someone is experiencing someone else being very intrusive about anything like that then they can come to you for support in dealing with the situation.

In a gender-first group, providing education related to anatomy should always be gender- and trans-inclusive. If you decide to teach about periods and (what for clarity we might call) “female” puberty, talk about it as something that may or may not be happening to members — and if you are doing that then you should probably also:

  • teach about (what for clarity we might call) “male” puberty
  • teach about puberty for people who were assigned female at birth but who are going through a “male” puberty (e.g. taking testosterone)
  • teach about puberty for people who were assigned male at birth but who are going through a “female” puberty (e.g. taking oestrogen)
  • teach about what happens if a young person is taking hormone blockers and puberty is simply not happening

Option 3: Hybrid

If you try to do both, your criteria is something like: “open to anyone who is a girl and/or who has (or is expecting to have) periods”. It means the only people who are explicitly excluded are cisgender boys.

The trans boys and some of the nonbinary kids who were assigned female at birth and some of the non-girl intersex kids who [will] menstruate will feel alienated when the central focus is about experience of girlhood.

The trans girls and some of the nonbinary kids who were assigned male at birth and some of the intersex girls will feel alienated when the central focus is period education.

There are some challenges and downsides associated with this approach. It has all the downsides of Option 1 and all the downsides of Option 2.

  • It opens your group up to people who don’t and won’t have periods (e.g. trans girls), and who will feel alienated and marginalised when you start educating the cis girls about periods;
  • It puts you in an awkward situation where trans girls may have to out themselves or lie if you ask them whether they’ve had their first period yet;
  • It opens your group up to trans boys and nonbinary kids who were assigned female at birth, who may already feel marginalised because their genders aren’t mentioned in the criteria, and who may feel alienated when they arrive to find a group that is basically for girls in all but name;
  • It puts you in an awkward situation where trans boys and nonbinary kids have to out themselves in order to attend and learn about their own periods.

It is possible to handle the first three bullet points with very careful management of expectations and boundaries, such as by frequently affirming that it’s okay if you don’t have periods, it’s okay if you do have periods but you’re not a girl, you can come along anyway if you’re trans, no one will directly ask you if you have periods, you don’t have to talk about your own periods, etc. This is a good idea anyway, no one should have to talk about personal bodily functions if they don’t want to and it’s a good way to teach kids about privacy and consent. And you’ll need to follow through on all of that and keep your promises — no asking anyone directly about their own experiences of their periods, and being really careful to ask everyone’s pronouns and get them right henceforth.

And for the fourth bullet point, some of the thoughts from Option 1 apply here as well: It may be possible to foster an environment where coming out is very safe, and the benefits of being part of the group are worth the risks and downsides of coming out.

As in the gender-first group, providing education related to anatomy should always be gender- and trans-inclusive. If you decide to teach about periods and (what for clarity we might call) “female” puberty, talk about it as something that may or may not be happening to members — and if you are doing that then you should probably also:

  • teach about (what for clarity we might call) “male” puberty
  • teach about puberty for people who were assigned female at birth but who are going through a “male” puberty (e.g. taking testosterone)
  • teach about puberty for people who were assigned male at birth but who are going through a “female” puberty (e.g. taking oestrogen)
  • teach about what happens if a young person is taking hormone blockers and puberty is simply not happening

Which way is best?

That depends on your goal.

If your goal is purely teaching about and supporting young people with their periods, go for option 1 and have no gender restrictions and be as gender-inclusive and trans-friendly as possible.

If your goal is purely to provide a space for girls and young women, go for option 2 and ignore puberty and teach tolerance of different body types.

If your goal is to provide a social space for anyone who’s not cis boys/cis men, take the hybrid approach and make sure that any puberty and body education is extremely inclusive and covers all body types.

~

Edit 2023–03–30: Added some paragraphs to Does removing “women/girls” from the name of the group marginalise women and girls outside of that context? and some examples to Option 1: Anatomy-first.

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Cassian

Pronouns: they/them. Feel free to point out my spelling etc. errors so I can fix them!