You Were a Trainwreck Before Estrogen

An addendum to Rae Rosenberg’s “You Were a Misogynist Before Testosterone


Trans communities often have something that resembles religion in my estimate–hormones. On the topic of testosterone and its masculinizing effects, Rosenberg criticized a This American Life episode featuring a trans man who justified his sexual objectification of women by citing testosterone as his excuse. Rosenberg notes (and rightly so) that misogyny is a learned behaviour and that there was no basis to connect a biochemical molecule to social norms about expressing sexual attraction.

As much as I would like to think otherwise, there’s no reason a trans person will be any better educated on the notions of biological essentialism or the Euro-colonial gender binary, so it follows that you will also find among trans women a range of anti-feminist or misogynist behaviours. Rosenberg’s article deals with the stereotypes associated with masculinity, and so I thought I would do the same for trans feminine folks and femininity–specifically the trope that we become emotionally fragile simply because we take estrogen.

With trans men, testosterone is often used to reinforce ideas of toxic masculinity, encouraging stereotypes about men as hypersexual, aggressive, angry, emotionally stunted beasts who want to hump everything they see. I see these narratives everywhere, from ‘activist’-leaning online forums to mainstream media.

If I go to a local trans feminine support group, I could ask each member to stand if they could answer “yes” to a few different questions. I could ask if anyone has been raped, and around two-thirds of the group will stand up.  I could ask if anyone lost their jobs and has struggled in their careers, about a quarter. If they are on poor terms with their parents, about two-thirds. How many lost their marriages, maybe a third. Assaulted? Half. Victims of domestic violence? Half again. Harassed on the street? All of them. Most of the circle will have experienced two or more of these things.

These same ladies will insist, vociferously and from the bottom of their heart, that it’s the estrogen making them cry.

Don’t get me wrong, as a trans woman and someone who has the liberty and dumb luck to have the option of hormone replacements, I’m well aware of its effects. I felt that I had been gasping for air at high altitude for two decades before I transitioned, and just starting hormone replacements alone felt like I began to breathe for the first time in my life. But I am quite confident that my sudden inability to remain stoic had everything to do with surviving multiple assaults and a domestic abuse situation and nothing to do with a steroidal hormone, despite both occurring at the same time.

And let’s not forget the suffocating effect untreated gender dysphoria can have long before we figure any of this out. The oft-quoted 41% statistic referring to the rate of attempted suicides in trans Americans isn’t actually lifelong or spread out evenly–it’s mostly clustered around coming out and the planning thereof, usually settling to be no different than the general population as a person’s transition progresses. The closet is no place for a person, yet I see its effects seldom recognized by those crediting estrogen for their newfound emotions–something which usually begins shortly after coming out.

One thing I appreciate about Rae Rosenberg’s piece is that it reminds us that oppression is something you do, rather than something you are.

When trans men argue that they can’t be misogynist because they were socialized as women, it further erases that women can also reinforce and reproduce misogyny.

I would certainly say it is also misogyny–albeit of the internalized variety–for us trans feminine folks to look at the ruins around us and assume we’re emotional because of estrogen. I think this does a disservice to us all when we don’t recognize that anybody would be right in feeling a bit fragile in the circumstances I described above. We’ve earned our tears, estrogen be damned.

All this occurs alongside and in addition to our hormone replacements. I’m just not convinced causation has ever been teased out. It sounds far more likely that we are just reproducing the idea that expressing emotion is effeminate, rather than an ordinary adaptation to stress, something most of us are under a tremendous amount of. And while it is validating in the context of a support group, let’s not forget that it will just as easily be the justification of our dismissals by transmisogynistic people when we leave it.




  1. Allison says

    Count me as another trans woman who hasn’t noticed a huge emotional change from estrogen.

    I had trouble crying before. Actually, I couldn’t cry, even when I felt like it and every part of my fiber longed to let it out. But it wasn’t testosterone that caused it. It was the way I was mocked and humiliated and punished for crying when I was a child. And the realization that no one gave a damn about how I felt, especially not my parents. (And my siblings took and still take their cues from my parents, even though they’re dead now.) At some point, you learn that crying just lets them know how best to hurt you and you train yourself to never cry. You also train yourself not to show anger, since it just gets you mocked and humiliated and punished, too, and you feel like a contemptible fool for showing anger since everyone just laughs at it and you. You train yourself not to show joy because that also tells them how they can best hurt you. When you grow up surrounded by people who hate you for being the way you are, or maybe hate you just for existing, and there is on one, no one who gives you any support or even sympathy, you learn not to feel and especially not to show you feel even if you do.

    And I still can’t cry, even after a year and a half of HRT. I’ve been wishing for decades that I could cry, I’ve gone to therapists (not all of whom seemed to understand how crippled I feel because I can’t.) But at least seeing myself as trans and transitioning have pulled the cork out of the bottle that my traumas were sealed up in, so I can finally work on them with the help of my gender therapist who fortuitously has a lot of training in trauma treatment. I’m discovering things about myself, among them that feeling and emotion are central to my being and they are how I process my life and my experiences. People tell me how different I am now that I’ve come out, more open, more honest, less defensive. They even call me brave and inspiring, which I still don’t get.

    So, yes, based on my experience, I’d agree that it is probably not estrogen but transitioning — taking off the cloak of lies and getting out of the Chateau d’If of who we were forced to be — that lets people cry (well, maybe other people) and live their feelings.

    But I still wish I could cry.

  2. says

    Have those people considered the placebo effect?
    As you say, trans people grow up in the same fucked up world the rest of us does.
    They don’t get a trans special edition gender education.
    And that world says women cry, they are emotional, all because of their hormones*. And then you get those hormones and now you expect to suddenly get all those emotions and look what happens.
    Now, hormones are powerful stuff, nobody’s going to deny that and I’m saying this as somebody whose little white pill keeps them functioning. But they don’t seem to turn you into different people.

    I’m not trans, but I had an abusive childhood, so I get a lot of what you’re saying. The way I learned to cry was by just curling up in bed and thinking about/reading a very sad story. If I cannot cry for myself, I can cry for others and it gets me some relief.

    *Though I also found the thought on the other thread interesting that there is a difference between growing into a certain hormone balance and being thrown into it as an adult. It would be interesting to hear from young trans people who were allowed to transition in their youths without having had to go through the wrong kind of puberty.

  3. says

    I love these posts – they’re very educational for people like me who float in piles of privilege-cushions on our privilege-boats down a river of white chocolate privilege. It’s stuff I’m ashamed that I never paid attention to.