Starting with the usual disclaimer: Transition Reactions is a mostly anecdotal series covering the weird shit people say to me when they find out I’m trans, please do not take this as a monolithic commentary on gender variance in general.
There are a few tropes that are quite stubborn in the trans community, and perhaps the most determined of these is the notion of being overwhelmed with emotions when transfeminine folks start estrogen or get a boost in their estrogen dose.
Hormones occasionally take an almost religious role in parts of the trans community. It’s difficult to dispute their effects on physiology. For transfems, skin becomes softer, hair becomes lighter, beards grow a lot slower, fat moves from your tummy to your hips, muscle doesn’t bulk as quickly, your breasts grow, your skeleton over decades will tweak your profile, etc. These changes are easy to observe, and in many cases are even theoretically measurable. These changes are sometimes enough to alleviate dysphoria in some trans women. They’re important changes.
Supposedly your sex drive also drops, but I found that mine returned after I started to regain confidence in my self-image. Whatever supposedly hormone-driven sex drive I had was replaced by the ability to start appreciating myself, so I found a few months into my HRT that my sex drive was more or less the same as it was prior to transition.
When I’m mentoring young questioning folks, I tell them to have a realistic idea of what a hormone replacement regimen will give them. I focus on physical changes. The closest I come to talking about psychology are the weird food cravings you get when you first start HRT. Mine was bloody meat. I suddenly wanted my steaks rare, which was new. That, and salt. I could drink a jar of pickle brine some days.
But at least the trope of weird HRT cravings isn’t loaded with cultural baggage. It’s mostly harmless and it provides ample ammunition for good spirited self deprecation (some of the cravings I’ve heard were weird, man. You think my pickle brine is gross, just try attending a transfem support group)
So, what happens when you have generally uneducated folks who are transitioning? You get the tired old stereotypes of women being more emotional supposedly explaining why trans women are generally emotional when they start estrogen.
Here’s the thing: I’ve read the literature attempting to link estrogen to anything but physiology. It’s quite desperate. It’s EvoPsych levels of bad. The problem is that even if you do find a correlation, there’s a million and one moving parts–the biggest problem being “how do you measure levels of emotionality.” In the absence of anything remotely convincing, I remain skeptical of the exact role estrogen supposedly plays on emotional expression. It is far too convenient for these poorly designed experiments to support cultural stereotypes. The problem runs so deep that we’re asking the wrong question–how, exactly, does one measure the null hypothesis? Are you able to reasonably assess stoicism without the gender of the subject prejudicing your measurement?
I have an alternative hypothesis, one that still shares the problem of measurement, but one that I’m willing to bet is a more plausible explanation: Trans women are emotionally overwhelmed because we’re finally given permission to explore a feeling we’ve heavily suppressed for years. We’re emotionally overwhelmed because we have to deal with the intersection of transphobia and misogyny and sometimes racism. We’re emotionally overwhelmed because every time the media talks about us, it’s about how we’re perverted or dangerous or diseased. We’re emotionally overwhelmed because transitioning can cost us our friends, our family, our lovers, our jobs. We’re emotionally overwhelmed because dating just got a whole lot more dangerous. That’s a lot of stress I just described. Anyone would be right in feeling a bit fragile.
I think the effects of these sorts of things more likely constitute the cause of the increased emotionality (insofar as that can be measured), even if estrogen has a correlation. But my hypothesis has never quite penetrated the almost religious reverence for hormones held by some in the trans community. I corroborate that I am certainly more emotionally intelligent regarding my own state of being, but would sooner chalk that up to the woman’s gender role thrust upon me. I have permission to feel, so I feel. When people understood me to be a man (*snort*), I didn’t. I’m almost certain this has an effect on my emotional state, but it is not a popular opinion in the non-academic transfem community.
For now, I mostly stick to planting that skepticism in the mentoring of questioning teens. The Gospel of Estrogen is not questioned lightly. Don’t get me wrong–I’ve enjoyed the changes to my body, how natural it feels, but that doesn’t change how much I dislike the notion of mental changes. I’ll be the first to advocate the benefits of HRT in alleviating some gender dysphoria for some trans folk. But I’m still the same person I was before, just subjected to different cultural pressures, and I don’t much appreciate the narrative that I’m crying because I have boobs rather than because I just finished reading an article that compared trans women to sewer rats.
Let’s give cause and effect the consideration it deserves.