Friday, November 3, 2017

Joe Omundson

An experiment with estrogen

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to explore something fascinating. The story begins on Tinder: I matched with someone and we met up for coffee after exchanging a few messages. We talked about a variety of things that day, including her transition from male to female, and I mentioned that I'd always felt I had a feminine side but hadn't explored it very much.

Her response to my statement took me by surprise: "Do you want to try some of my hormone replacement pills?" I had never considered trying such a thing. She told me you can take them for a few days and notice psychological changes without any of the permanent physical changes that might begin after taking the pills for 2+ weeks. I had never known that was possible! I was intrigued but wanted to think about it more before deciding.

The next day -- I didn't have to think long -- I messaged her and said I wanted to take her up on the offer. I was simply way too curious to say no. I'd never heard of anyone doing this as a trial experiment, and now that I knew it was possible, I wondered why more people didn't try it. Nearly all of my friends have taken psychedelic substances that temporarily alter their perception of reality in order to gain insight and new perspectives. Why not try altering my hormones for a few days and see what I can learn from that? Hormones are such a basic influence on our minds and bodies, and changing their levels for a while is safer than taking drugs. These hormones already exist naturally in our bodies. This seemed like a good way to gain an understanding of some of the differences between the male/female experience and what hormone swings feel like.

My four-day experiment required me to take pills in the morning and evening. The first two days, I only took a testosterone blocker, and the last two days I continued the testosterone blocker and also took estrogen. This was done so that I could differentiate between the lack of testosterone and the addition of estrogen.

It's hard to say with certainty how much of my experience was placebo and how much was truly the effect of the hormones. It's quite possible that my preconceived ideas about gender stereotypes and the differences between women and men had a large influence on how I expected to feel, and therefore on how I felt. The experience might be different for someone else. I will simply report what I experienced; it's up to the reader to question which parts of my experience might have been placebo, because your guess is as good as mine.

The first thing I noticed from the testosterone blocker (spironolactone) was its diuretic effect. I had to pee a lot. It also lowers blood pressure, and I remember feeling unusually lightheaded one time and needed to drink some water. Mentally, I felt like I was in a slight brain fog, like my usual clarity and focus had become a bit muddy. Normally when I feel that way it's accompanied with (or caused by?) some anxiety or frustration about the way I feel, but that was absent now. I was a little bit unfocused but I also felt peaceful about that fact. It seemed as though the calculating, dominating, urgent male ego was diminished somewhat. Some of the brain fog could also have been explained by the difficulty I had falling asleep the first night.

Next I introduced the estrogen pills (estradiol). During this phase of the experiment, I seemed to have a more immediate, more vibrant experience of my emotions. I often feel relatively calm and peaceful, but now that emotional state was like a physical sensation that was coursing through my body. Normally in my interpersonal interactions I can remain patient and understanding, but it takes some energy; it's an effort I have to expend to stay in that place. Now, my patience was more natural, and there was an easy peace while waiting for something or listening to someone talk. It seemed like I had more curiosity and empathy. My libido was cut in half but overall I felt sexy. I noticed a different kind of softness looking back from the mirror one time and was fascinated by that.

I unexpectedly had the opportunity to smoke some cannabis the last night of the experiment, and I did so, and then I drove up into the mountains to camp. Where I would normally not even consider the idea of using my campstove outside on a cold night, this time it seemed like no big deal to bundle up, tediously unpack everything I'd need, and chop up and cook my vegetables and rice to create a nice meal for myself. The combination of THC and estrogen felt very warm and self-accepting. It was lovely, actually.

Going into the experiment, I was nervous that I might become so emotional that it would be difficult to focus at my job, but it was no problem and in fact I think the added patience made it easier to work efficiently and not be distracted by things. Being on estrogen did not make me unreasonably emotional. It also didn't make me feel more attracted to men or less attracted to women.

All in all, my time with estrogen was a positive experience. I felt pretty good when I was taking it. From what I read online, a lot of people who do hormone trials are strongly considering transitioning to another gender. I was never seriously considering that as something I wanted to do, but it did cause me to ask some other questions about myself and my relationship to gender.

None of the things I experienced were highly novel to me -- I had felt strongly emotional before, I had felt peaceful and patient before. But it reminded me of certain times in my life when I'd felt what I thought of as a feminine energy: gentle, graceful, sexy, loving, accepting. I realized that the hormones might take me to that place more immediately, but it's still an energy that I can access without needing to take hormones. I figured that if I give myself more permission to include those attributes in my life, I can learn to embody the "feminine" qualities that I resonate with.

In writing this report I am forced to ask the question: what is truly feminine, what is masculine, and what do those things mean? Furthermore -- what IS gender? Biological sex is one thing, but the concept of feeling like or being perceived as a man or a woman is more abstract than people like to think. Is gender just a code of behavior assigned based on how you're sorted into one of two groups? Is it like a mental/emotional/personality lens through which you view the world? It's something I still need to study more, but from the small amount of reading I've done it seems like both of these are possible descriptions of gender. I learned that gender was first distinguised from sex in 1955. (It's actually kind of amazing how much our collective understanding of gender and sexuality has evolved in 60 years.)

Opinions vary widely as to how much of our gender stereotypes are rooted in biological difference vs. socialization and culture. I have friends who heavily favor one of those perspectives or the other. Like most things in life I think it's somewhere in the middle: hormones and biology play a role in making a distinction between male and female brains and behavior patterns, but culture also imparts a lot of expectations that wouldn't be there otherwise, as can be readily observed by the fact that different cultures in different locations and time periods have had widely varying attitudes about how men and women should interact.

We might associate traits like empathy, gentleness, and nurturance with femininity, but why? What if men can naturally be just as in tune with these attributes, but our society trains them to be more dominant and stoic? How did these stereotypes arise? Why are they different here than they are in Africa or Asia?

Most importantly to me -- how do I want to define my own masculinity?

I've never felt proud to be male. As a Christian, I did my best to fulfill the masculine expectations, as the church is highly focused on gender roles and what it means to "be a man" and "be a woman", and I took that to heart along with everything else. But it always felt forced, and after I deconverted there was not as much pressure to be "manly". Maybe you've heard someone make a joke like "you're going to get your man card revoked for ordering that fruity drink!", as though manhood is a club and you can lose your membership by breaking the code of conduct. I have zero interest in belonging to that club. Most of the things popularly associated with being a man are either repulsive to me or have little relavance to my interests. At times growing up I was disgusted by certain important male influences in my life, the way they treated women, the way they used their male privilege to take what was not theirs, and the damage that these actions inflicted on me and my loved ones. Women have never hurt me or my family like men did. As a result of all this, I am generally more skeptical of men than women. I've always had a clear picture of the kind of man I don't want to be, but I've never formed a clear picture of what kind of man I do want to be.

What is the difference between asking "what kind of man do I want to be" and "what kind of person do I want to be"? The second question seems much easier for me to answer than the first. Why restrict what I can be to stay within the boundaries of manhood?

I think any time you ask a question like "what kind of man do you want to be" it automatically implies a division of men and women, and you're asking how you want to act in contrast with how women act; how you will act in groups of all men, and how you will interact with women (the "other"). If it is assumed that we all agree on what masculinity looks like, then "how will you be a man" is kind of a self answering question, isn't it? If "being a man" is a thing, then it must look a certain way, so it's already decided what it means to be a man and there's not much flexibility in answering the question. If being a man can look like anything, and being a woman can look like anything, then gender is not an important part of the equation and you'd just ask "what kind of person do you want to be?". Right? I mean I think that makes sense to me. I don't go around asking myself, "what kind of right-handed person do I want to become?" or "what kind of non-attached-earlobes person do I want to become?" My physical, genetic characteristics do not play that big of a role in determining how I want to treat people, what I want my lifestyle to be, how I want to impact the world, what things I enjoy, or what things I find rewarding and meaningful. The fact that I have a penis doesn't determine the way I want to live.

Maybe the real aim of the question is to ask: "Do you want to be a man?", and the implication of that question is: "Do you want to be the kind of man that society expects you to be?" Or maybe it's "how do you want to choose to apply the stereotypically masculine energy which I assume you possess?". Or, maybe there are multiple "masculine" archetypes that males are allowed to choose from, and the same for females. So the question is literally asking "which masculine role do you like?" Do you want to be strong and silent? Loud and dominating? Adventurous and wild? But if the roles of a man can vary significantly enough for the question "what kind of man" to be at all interesting, wouldn't there be a large overlap with the roles women play, making gender again irrelevant?

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this hormone experiment was that my gender identity is really up to me to decide. It's mine to question. If being a man is really that terrible for me, if I think I'm more like a woman deep down, the option to transition is there. If I don't want to do that, I can still choose to identify as a non-binary gender or consider myself genderless. Or I can claim masculinity but choose to act however I please. I'm still not sure how I feel about it. My gender identity hasn't seemed very important to me and I don't feel strongly one way or another.

But the train of thought that I've been riding lately is: what would it look like if I embraced my own masculinity, despite the distorted cultural ideas surrounding what it means to be masculine? Can I find my own version of being a man that doesn't have any connection to the normal stereotypes but rather is defined only by what I make of it? Can I be peaceful, gentle, graceful, beautiful, empathetic, loving, fair, cooperative, nurturing, quiet, and masculine all at the same time? If so, what's the point of describing it as masculine? Can I be a man without using male privilege for personal gain at the expense of others? Does it actually help me in any way if I make peace with the idea of being masculine or should I just forget about it and pursue the qualities that I want to embody individually? If I want to help change the world so that patriarchal cultural norms lose their power and life is more fair for everyone, is it more powerful for me to identify as a man and show by example that we can act better than the stereotypes would have people believe, or is it more powerful to be someone who has the option to identify as a man but instead of accepting that privilege chooses to be distant from it? And ultimately, if both options are equally viable... which do I prefer?

When it comes down to it, I can't see the social construct of "masculine" as something that's not imaginary. So that makes it hard for me to be like YEAH I'M TOTALLY A DUDE. The trend in my life has usually been to discard systems of thought based around imaginary things, so I'm tempted to go that route again and say "I'm not a man and nobody really is because that's only a concept and not a real property of existence." Just like I don't call myself "a liberal" or "a metalhead" or "a hippie" because it doesn't make sense to constrain myself to any particular label.

As you can see, I may have come out of this trial with more questions than when I began. One certain result is that it encouraged me to embrace the attributes in myself that I have been trained to repress because they are too "feminine". And that's something helpful I can do for myself immediately, regardless of how I end up thinking about my gender. I want to be fully myself without fear of how my actions might be perceived as gendered, or what people will think if my behavior doesn't line up with what's expected of a man. I carry a lot of that subconsciously from my childhood but I want to break free and find the courage to explore my individual expression.

I can see now the utility of a word like "genderqueer". It's quite a wide umbrella term applying to anyone who doesn't identify with the gender that "matches" their biological sex: perhaps feeling like the opposite binary gender, or as a distinct non-binary gender, or as no gender, or shifting between genders, or any other non-traditional gender role. What am I exactly? I don't know, but I can say pretty confidently that I'm not comfortable playing the traditional masculine role. I don't seem to share many of the urges and inclinations of most of the males I interact with. So I could say I'm genderqueer. But what if I'm just misinterpreting the men around me, what if I'm projecting my painful impressions of masculinity onto them, what if the ugly traits of masculinity they display are actually only because they are pressured to adopt certain things and deep down they don't like it either? In that case I'm not unusual at all for a biological man, and the cultural stereotypes of masculinity are simply not well suited to the human experience.

Yeah, I think I feel comfortable enough with male pronouns, my male appearance, deepish voice, facial hair, broad shoulders etc. -- my body is pretty good, I like it well enough. I don't feel like it needs to be more female. Male is my sex, for sure, I have a penis, I have testes, I am fertile. Whatever. I might feel like female stereotypes align better with my worldview and personality and therefore wish I could be female gendered. But overall I don't want to honor the misguided constructs in any way. That's like saying, I've come to the conclusion that Christianity is wrong and religion is bullshit! Therefore I'm going to become a Hindu because I like their values better. That's a fair choice and plenty of people approach religion that way, but for me personally, it makes sense to just be an agnostic/atheist if you believe that religion is bullshit. And with gender I'm less mad about the specifics of male and female expectations, and more upset with the way that these expectations are seen as being of such fundamental importance, the way they are used to maintain power imbalances, the way they limit how people think of themselves and each other. It's the system that's the problem rather than the specific rules of the game.

I think gender is very fluid, gender being a very heavily loaded word representing ... your internal experience of your emotions interacting with the world and other people and how that drives you to live your life and express yourself? I guess? I'm really not sure what it represents. Maybe I'm kind of a gender atheist, it doesn't really exist as a thing that can be pointed at directly but rather we all have such widely varying attributes that trying to group personalities based on biological sex is a poor approximation of reality. In truth, everyone is genderqueer. Everyone is their own gender, because everyone has different experiences and emotions and interactions. Men don't all feel the same way about life and neither do women. Someone might happen to naturally fit the specific cultural notion of what a man or a woman should be, but that doesn't make them "normal" and everyone else "queer"; it just means that a broken clock is still right twice a day.

Maybe the solution isn't to identify myself as queer or abnormal. Maybe I'm profoundly normal in my individuality, and the point I want to make is: yeah I'm male physically but don't expect me to act "masculine" because that's such a narrow expectation, and why should I or anyone else be that way? It's a flawed construct and I don't like to imply that it is "normal" by calling myself "queer".

Someone will point out the part I said about how biological differences do have some effect. And I can agree that probably on average there is some difference in personality and action and preference between biological men and women. But I feel like it's a Venn diagram where the circles are 90% overlapping. You could take the extremes of each and say "there's the difference, there's what it means to be male and female!" but to imply that all members of a gender bear those attributes, or that an individual of one gender is significantly more likely than the other to bear those attributes, seems like a very poor prediction to the point that it's not useful or interesting anymore. To make such an assumption is to be unobservant of how complex people are, and to impose those differences on children can be harmful. Pretty much the only time it's useful is when collectively analyzing the behavior of large groups of men and women and looking for subtle differences in how they handle specific things. That's not a type of analysis that is often relevant to daily life.

OK -- I'll end this here. I have a lot of questions to think about, and I need to do some more thinking in order to unearth some of the questions which I will then need to think about more. So I don't have many answers at this point, but I thought I'd share my process. I'm very curious what other people think about this topic and what reactions you've had to my ideas, so please leave a comment or send me an email if you'd like to talk about this further.

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