Tag Archives: FTM

“Hidden Figures” in the struggle for civil rights

holding-it-collageIn 1999, I was also a “hidden figure” in the struggle for civil rights in this country.

Laverne Cox talked about the parallels between the real-life NASA “computers” from the movie, “Hidden Figures,” on Stephen Colbert’s talk show recently, and the case of the young Supreme Court plaintiff, Gavin Grimm, who is suing for the right to use the boy’s bathrooms at his public high school. Like me, Gavin is FTM, and we’ve both facing the same civil rights barrier today, in 2017, as black Americans did in 1961.

I came out later in life than Mr. Grimm, who is now seventeen. I was 24 and a divorced parent, living in Florida, working at my first job out of college, when I finally knew what it was that had been crushing me, all of my life, without a name. I was transgender, a man. And that meant I was going to have to fight.

I’d fought bullies all my life, starting with the ones in my own family. It was one of my first obsessions, to figure out what it was about me that made me seem a victim to others, a stranger. Another recent film, “Moonlight,” brought this home to me, watching the young hero, Chiron, hide from the boys who chase him through the streets of Miami. He learns why he is their target, and then has to learn to hate himself for being what even his mother despises.

For my transition from female to male, I began by following the standards of care for the time, which required a “real life test” before medical intervention. That meant dressing as male, using my new name, and using the men’s restrooms. It meant coming out to family and friends, and weathering their responses. When I first came out as trans to HR, I got their consent to begin using the men’s, but within a few days, one of my male co-workers had complained. After that, I was given a key to a bathroom in another building on campus and told I’d have to use either that or the women’s room.

Even after I came back from surgery and had new documentation as male, because my co-workers knew my history, I was still not allowed to use the men’s room. To go into the women’s would have felt like an admission that my transphobic employers were right, and I was “really” a woman. That what I knew about myself was not as true or trustworthy as what other people knew.

The company was planning new headquarters of its own, down the road. We all toured the newly constructed building a few months before the move from our rented offices in a corporate park. My old boss told me there would be no bathroom solution for me here, no single user bathrooms. That was my timetable: find a new job before my only bathroom disappeared. I didn’t have a hero for a boss, dedicated to smashing barriers to my participation. I was a replaceable cog in a capitalist machine, and for all I knew, it was my new, evangelical boss at the firm who objected to my presence in the men’s room. It wasn’t hard to intuit that they would welcome my replacement, with some new cog who wasn’t such an uncomfortable fit.

One of my jobs in college was in a hospital that was constructed in the mid 1950s. It was evident from the placement of sets of public restrooms and water fountains, that it was originally built with segregated facilities for colored and white staff and visitors. I knew it on some level, but still lacked the words to describe what I saw: that public access is a civil rights issue, that it is built into society with laws and myths as well as with bricks and mortar, and that it’s easier to take down some signs than to change people’s ideas of how to divide us, and where we belong.

For the rest of my tenure at that firm, when I needed to go, I left my air-conditioned cubicle, crossed courtyards and parking lots in sweltering Florida heat and sudden, powerful rainstorms, and unlocked the semi-private bathroom on the other side of the corporate park. I didn’t call it transphobia, or civil rights, or public access. I just called it going to the bathroom. That was how my oppressors preferred it.

Stealth was my goal and my privilege as a transgender man, an escape unavailable to people of color during the Jim Crow years. In public places, I am invisible even to people looking for a transgender person. I’m proud of who I am today, and resent having to hide. I’m not proud of the times when I’ve buckled under the weight of transphobia. I felt humiliated, like I’d failed.

I am transgender, but it’s not what people first told me being trans is.

Fighting to be who I am, in a world that has systematically removed me from its own image of itself, is a struggle that has shaped my life. I had to penetrate a wall of deception, beginning in early childhood, at the age when we first come to see ourselves, including our genders. As a child in the late 1970s and early 80s, I was denied the knowledge that being FTM was even something a person might be. I didn’t know we existed until I was in college. And then it took a period of grief, to take stock of my life and see how this new knowledge fit my condition. That being FTM was not just an idea with no consequence, but that I am FTM, and it means my condition has a name, that there are others, and avenues for relief. Being able to name that pain has been powerful.

I am transgender, but it’s not what people first told me being trans is. I’m not a sexual predator, or a habitual liar. My gender identity is not a “lifestyle choice.” Being trans is part of who I am. It is something essential to me, and I was denied that self knowledge for such a long time. Without realizing, I absorbed false, damaging impressions of what it meant to be trans.

To say, “I am racist,” or “I am transphobic” is a universally true claim for all Americans, regardless of our race or gender. We breathe in these myths and phobias like smog, because we need to breathe, even when the air is polluted. We need to have families, friends, and communities, to share their values, and if the only ones available to us are poisoned by bigotry, then that’s what we’ll take in. Living in a deeply conservative place, I struggled not to believe in the correctness of the transphobic reactions I got from other people. The majority of people seemed to believe I deserved to be treated this way. The more power people had to take away my rights, the harder it was to convince myself I was actually an okay person.

I began my transition more than seventeen years ago. In that time, I’ve grown older and my society has grown more interested in the experiences of oppressed people, in breathing the clean air of our true diversity as a strength of American society. That we would become less transphobic over time may seem like a given in retrospect, inevitable progress in social justice, but it takes lifetimes, and in mine, acceptance of transgender people has happened more quickly than in any other generation in American history. Trans people are part of the ongoing story of civil rights in this country.

America has a lot of its own myths, not all of them good, but I always thought Americans had agreed on some basics that we wanted for one another, like equality. Somewhere along the line, some of us have lost sight of this civic lesson: that we need equal access to the necessities of a decent life—bathroom facilities and schools, roads, marriage, clean air and water, healthcare, and the rest of the things we’re fighting for right now. Each of these things needs to be available to all of us, not just the well off. These are not special privileges. Everyone has to work, and go to the bathroom, and protect our families.

I was robbed of more than a job when I transitioned in 1999, gave up more than the hours spent in crossing campus to use the bathroom. I lost relationships and a home, and my illusion that society was not hostile to my existence. I found out that people who pray, and people who told me they loved me, were perfectly willing to express their disgust for me, in every way you can imagine, great and small. Little things are all our lives are made up of, the atoms of our existence. If you take them all away, all of the safe, clean, interesting places where life can exist, there’s nothing left. One of the ways you take them away from others, is when you look away, and decide this isn’t your fight.

It takes every kind of resistance to face down injustice. Sometimes it looks like Kevin Costner as Al Harrison in “Hidden Figures,” using a heavy pipe to destroy barriers to his vision of a patriotic meritocracy at NASA. And sometimes progress comes in a form like Katherine G. Johnson’s, taking the risk to speak truth to power. Or like Dorothy Vaughan, by finding innovative ways to empower yourself and the people around you through education. Next month, in this same tradition, a shy teenager named Gavin, who has faithfully worked within the system, will stand before the Supreme Court to say, “I belong here.” And so do I, and so do you.

Feature Image: clockwise from top left: Gavin Grimm, Katherine G. Johnson, still from “Moonlight”, 1943 sign for segregated bathrooms

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How to naturally boost testosterone

Supplements make unsupported claims, but that doesn't prevent them from taking billions of your dollars.

Supplements make unsupported claims, but that doesn’t prevent them from taking billions of your dollars.

“Naturally boost testosterone, and increase the size of your penis.” Does it work for FTMs? Here’s how one trans man and technical writer researches those claims.

Maybe you’ve got “absolutely no problem (TM)” with the size of your unit. If that is not the case, such promises are beguiling. All the more true for transgender men. A pill, or a diet, that will masculinize a person’s body, without taking testosterone, is exactly what some trans and gender nonconforming folks are looking for. And the industry delivers: people spend billions of dollars on products (and books about diets) that don’t live up to the hype.

Why are we so gullible? Because we want it, a lot, and because there’s so much to know about how our bodies work, that it’s easy to be confused by scientific-sounding claims. This weekend, someone told me that if you eat a lot of broccoli, it will stop your tongue from producing estrogen. What they said exactly was, “Broccoli has been proven to block the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen.” And other people believed it.

Might as well as Google, “Am I man enough?”

I knew this was not true, but now I was faced with the challenge to disprove a nonsensical statement to people who didn’t particularly want to not believe it was plausible.

“Does broccoli block absorption of estrogen?” is not the kind of question that Google can answer (yet), not like it will if you ask “How old is Cher?”, or “What’s the capital of Assyria?” If you try, the results may lead you to some articles about broccoli and estrogen and, if you have been misled or don’t understand what you’ve read, you may end up believing something like what I was told about broccoli.

Complicated information like how our bodies use food and hormones isn’t as easy to transfer as simple advice like “eat broccoli.” It’s like a game of telephone. On the starting end, there may have been a true fact, but by the time the message reaches its final recipient, it’s nonsense.

I’ve written before on this blog about how difficult it is to figure out what is trustworthy information, among all that is posted as “fact” on the internet. When I was growing up, traditional publishing included fact checking, providing some reassurance that the contents of a book marked “Non-Fiction” on the cover were just that. Online, the job of separating fiction (or garbled nonsense) from fact is the responsibility of the reader.

To find out whether it’s true, that “broccoli has been proven to block the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen,” I have to know how the human body works. Without a fundamental education, I wouldn’t know the right questions to ask.

The person who says that broccoli blocks the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen presumes the following are true:

  1. Estrogen comes from food.
  2. Your tongue is the organ that turns food to estrogen.
  3. Broccoli can prevent this conversion.

All three of these are false.

First, estrogen does not come from food. Sex hormones are naturally produced by our bodies. We can also absorb hormones in the forms of pills, creams, injections, and patches. Some kinds of estradiol pills are designed to be taken sublingually. There are a lot of blood vessels close to the surface, beneath your tongue, and some medications are designed to be absorbed sublingually, directly into the bloodstream. If you hold a micronized estrogen pill under your tongue, your tongue is absorbing estrogen. It is not turning one thing (phytoestrogens) into another (estrogen), and it’s only able to efficiently absorb chemicals that have been very finely milled, to a microscopic degree, so the molecules are small enough to cross the mucous membrane. If you hold peas, or milk, or avocado, or tofu, or any other food, under your tongue, estrogen is not going to come out of it and go into your bloodstream.

There are substances called phytoestrogens which occur in small amounts in our food, and mimic some (but not most) of the effects of estrogen. Phytoestrogens are chemically and structurally different from the estrogens that human bodies make, and from the kinds of synthetic estrogen that come in pills and patches. These differences are why there’s no amount of phytoestrogens that can replace estrogen at normal, healthy levels in a human. When you eat broccoli, a small amount of phytoestrogens are absorbed through the walls of your digestive tract (starting with your tongue), and circulate in your bloodstream. They have a weak effect on the body that is not well studied, and you excrete them with your urine, just like with other hormones.  

To recap:

  1. There’s no way to prevent your tongue from converting food into estrogen, because it does not do this.
  2. The phytoestrogens in foods (like broccoli) occur in small amounts, and have different, weaker effects on the human body than either natural or synthetic estrogens.
  3. No food can replace hormone therapy.

But what about the claims to “naturally boost testosterone”? The majority of supplements contain misleading and unsubstantiated claims, and mislabeled ingredients. This doesn’t stop Americans from spending billions of dollars every year on vitamins and other dietary supplements. Transgender men in my Facebook group ask this question often: “How can I masculinize my appearance without taking testosterone?”

The answer is that you can’t, at least not to a significant degree. Surly Amy turned to professional bodybuilders for information on “Natural Transition,” a trademarked term. “I asked [natural bodybuilder Denise James] if following the prescribed routine would result in masculinization: a deeper voice, increased body hair, etc. She said that women who are natural bodybuilders don’t generally experience those effects.” 

When I investigate claims of products that are said to raise testosterone levels, I’m skeptical on a number of levels. First of all, the claim is generally directed at cisgender men. Whether the product will have an effect on a trans man, is another question, and much like the broccoli claim, you have to know more about how human bodies work, to properly evaluate its value.

Read the whole claim, including the studies your source says support their statements. Understand what the claim is.

For example, when I search on “natural testosterone enhancement” I get a mixed bag of results. Many of the hits I get are just lists of vitamins and nutrients that you already need to be healthy. The Livestrong site says this about broccoli and estrogen: “Cruciferous vegetables, especially broccoli, contain many nutrients that promote healthy metabolism of hormones.”

Your body needs nutrition to work properly. Part of healthy bodily function is making hormones. So sure, broccoli is related to hormone levels, but no more so than a hundred other nutrient-dense foods. Being properly nourished is always good advice, especially if you want to feel better. The more diverse your diet, the more likely you’re getting all of the nutrients you need—like zinc, vitamin D, and saturated fat—to make hormones, sweat, muscles, hair, and everything else you’re made of.

The Livestrong site also says that xenoestrogens (phytoestrogens are plant-based xenoestrogens) have two different classes of side effects. “In men, high estrogen may lead to a decrease in sex drive, decreased muscle mass, chronic fatigue and an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. Women may experience severe premenstrual syndrome, unexplained weight gain, hot flashes, allergies, osteoporosis and depression.” Which ones should I expect will apply to me, an FTM? And how much support do any of these statements have in the medical literature? According to one abstract, “The possible impact of xenoestrogens, to which humans are also exposed through the food chain, needs to be further clarified”: a fancy way of saying, “we just don’t know yet.” The Livestrong site doesn’t say, so I would have to search for the answer to each one: “sex drive xenoestrogen”, “muscle mass xenoestrogen”, and so on, maybe add “female” and “male” to those searches, and see what comes up. 

There’s something called a “xenoandrogen,” too, which have characteristics similar to xenoestrogens. These have been studied even less, and while they exist in substances like certain kinds of tree pollen used in Ayurvedic medicine, they are not found in food.

Some products that claim to be “testosterone boosting” are really designed to make your penis hard. Classic (and totally unproven) aphrodisiacs, like eggs, avocados, and other egg-shaped foods, will sometimes appear on these lists, and are based on magical thinking that says if it looks like a testicle, it must be good for virility. Some products claim to improve your vascular health, which may help with the underlying cause for impotence, but are really best left to a doctor to diagnose and treat. My point, in either case, is that neither of these has a thing to do with testosterone. The only connection among these health claims is they all play on male fears of sexual inadequacy, which is what a “natural testosterone booster” search is really all about. Might as well as Google, “Am I man enough?”

If you have found a product that claims to “boost testosterone,” next ask the question, “How does it work?” How does this product (or practice) affect testosterone levels? Based on your understanding of the body, does the explanation make sense, or is it like the broccoli example, contradicting what you know to be true about the body? You might have to return to your general studies in digestion, or the endocrine system, to be sure. That’s okay: no one knows absolutely everything about a subject. As you read, when questions arise, jot them down and do the research.

Once you’ve identified the method by which a product or practice claims to increase testosterone levels in the human body, study the literature around this, until you understand how it claims to work. Search on the keywords involved in the mechanism, not just the product itself. Has it been tested in a double-blind, controlled study with a large number of participants? Were the results written about in a peer-reviewed journal?

And if it does make sense, generally speaking, will it work on your body in particular? Not all our bodies work like the subjects that appear in medical studies. Trans men’s bodies are not the same as cisgender men’s bodies. If you’ve studied the product and it affects production of testosterone, will it still work in a body without testes? You may have to study the way the product or practice works on female bodies.

Pay attention to sources. Just because it’s on a blog doesn’t mean it’s not true. Who’s the author? Are they credible? Are they trying to sell you something? Keep track of where you pick up your facts. Even a sales website written by non-doctors can be telling you the truth, but before you accept it, confirm it with another source, one you are sure is not making money off convincing you to buy their product.

When are you done? Ask yourself, if I were a journalist writing an article on this subject, who are the authorities I would ask? Then go find those sources by adding their name to your search. What are the organizations you consider reliable sources of health-related information? Some terms to consider adding: “peer reviewed” “endocrinologist” “gastroenterology.”

A final tip for your searches: try adding the word “controversy” to your keywords. The results will give you another perspective, and address the differences in opinion that exist on a subject.

Keep studying. The more you know, the harder it will be to fool you, and the easier it will be for you to investigate a claim.

Share your work. If you are out with the guys and one of your buddies starts talking about this amazing study and how he’s eating six cups of broccoli a day, and it’s really working because look, he’s got four new chin hairs, ask if he knows how it works. When you come to the part where your friend doesn’t know how his body works, send him a link to one of your sources that explains it. 

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“Manning Up” and Becoming Whole

justin in sequoia

On getting broken down and building oneself back up again.

I’m two months out from back surgery, and beginning to feel like myself again. For more than a year, I suffered crippling back and leg pain from what might be a very old injury. The body awareness I’ve regained from surgery is joined by the sense of being gladly alive and sensate, after stripping the dulling layer of pain medication.

While I was still in the throes of my ordeal, and many months from resolution, I wrote and massively revised a story, “Heartbreak and Detox,” which was accepted for publication in a new transmasculine anthology called “Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves,” edited by Zander Keig and Mitch Kellaway. Keig co-edited the 2011 Lambda Literary Finalist, Letters for My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect.

“This anthology will help provide the much-needed space for trans men to reposition gender change within the context of their lives as humans connected intimately with others,” writes Kellaway.

I’m at a bus stop and I hear my name being called, and try to pretend that I didn’t. I’d already seen her and Luc when I heard him innocently shout to me. He doesn’t realize how it wounds me to see her, my ex’s new girlfriend, who is with him. Of course she and Luc are friends. They’re all friends, in this small town, the whole queer, poly, trans and allied, kinky hipster crowd. Just not with me.

Avoidance of mutual friends is one of the stages of grief, but it’s not the first. We live in the same town. I used to go past her house every week. When we started dating, crossing the railroad tracks between our neighborhoods became a heightened experience, like crossing between worlds. Now her house is like a rotting tooth in my mouth that I can’t help but probe with my tongue.

 

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