Felicitas van Laak explores queer experiences of menopause
BY FELICITAS VAN LAAK
My all-time favourite reference to the menopause is a conversation in Fleabag where Belinda refers to it as “the most wonderful fucking thing in the world”, to which Fleabag answers, “I was told it was horrendous”, and Belinda replies, “It is horrendous, but then it’s magnificent.” This brilliant exception only confirms the rule that media representations of menopausal women are scarce, while representations of queer people going through menopause are non-existent.
In our society, the menopause is still a taboo topic, joining the ranks of menstruation and postnatal issues – nobody is talking about it. And if they do, the menopause is referred to as this infamous hormonal change that renders women undesirable and puts them in a place of lack. That’s why, at 22 years old, I’m dreading the time when my body supposedly changes for the worse. It’s also perhaps why so many women avoid educating themselves on the topic altogether, leaving them totally unprepared for when the symptoms finally start to show – and unlike bumping into your ex at her monthly poetry slam event, they are unavoidable. So, in an effort to educate ourselves, we spoke to some experts to find out what we can expect from “the change”.
Psychotherapist Rachel Morris has delivered many workshops on menopause. According to her, “talking and sharing experiences and knowledge is absolutely the best medicine and the best therapy.” When it comes to menopausal symptoms, Rachel says: “I was expecting hot flushes and maybe a bit of weight gain but nothing and no one had prepared me for the anxiety, exhaustion and low constant threatening depression. Every menopausal woman I talked to reported higher levels of anxiety and decreased resilience to stress and none of us had any inkling they were symptoms.”
However, when looking for advice on her experience, every book she read focussed on penetrative, heterosexual sex “so that your diminishing desire and atrophying vagina didn’t interrupt your (or his) sex life, god forbid. Fuck sex! What about my capacity to get through a day without having a panic attack or worse – crying at work?”
Tania Glyde confirms the way in which menopause is represented in the media is “about fertility ending, reduced capacity to have penis-in-vagina sex, weight gain and a general sense of mourning for the aspects of femaleness that are supposed to be pleasing to men.” She is pursuing a masters in counselling and psychotherapy and for her dissertation, she is conducting research on queer menopause, and how therapists can better support their queer menopausal clients. Much of the advice given on the menopause “may be alienating and irrelevant to queer people”, she believes.
Indeed, for many of us, it is especially reductive to think of the menopause in biological terms only, as it impacts our social lives as well as our identity formation. Rachel recalls how in her workshops, some self-identifying butch lesbians and non-binary people have talked about feeling humiliated by having hot flushes in public. The menopause is a strongly gendered affair and often excludes menopausal experiences of people who do not identify accordingly. In a letter to HELLO! earlier this year, actor Bunny Cook writes, “People like me – gender neutral, gay, single, no children – don’t get the menopause. That’s the message I had absorbed from what I’d seen, and because I don’t connect with the term female – and the menopause is female.”
What about people who identify as female and do not necessarily go through menopause? When it comes to trans women’s experiences of and attitudes towards the menopause, we are faced with a complete lack of knowledge. Fortunately, inspired by artist and performer Emma Frankland, Sophie Mohamed and Myra S. Hunter carried out an exploratory UK study about “transgender women’s experiences and beliefs about hormone therapy through and beyond mid-age”. They found that among trans women, “menopause was generally not considered to be particularly relevant, in light of biological differences between trans and cisgender women.” This attitude might be a reflection of the negative stereotypes surrounding the menopause. As most participants said they would continue to use hormone therapy (HRT) for life, the experience of menopause is more of an option anyway.
But what most people don’t know is that trans women may encounter menopausal symptoms when starting with or changing their HRT doses. For example, Emma experienced menopausal symptoms in her early 30s, which she now chooses to control with HRT. “I am a trans woman, and it is interesting to me that I had an experience at that age which is akin to many older cis women encountering similar symptoms like hot flushes, fatigue, or the desire to carry an axe in my handbag.
“Like many other women, I have choices to make about my menopause”, Emma continues. “When and how I choose to cease taking hormone therapy and my political and personal motivations for doing so. Right now, I am still young, and I am happy with the effect of the hormones, but when I get older, I want to follow my mum’s example and embrace my crone age!”
When it comes to embracing your “crone age”, menopausal changes also affect the people who share our lives. In recent years, some research has been conducted on how lesbian experiences of menopause differ from women in heterosexual relationships. The 2003 study Sexual Orientation and the Meaning of Menopause for Women’s Sex Lives suggests that as both partners in a same-sex relationship eventually go through menopause, they do not complain about menopausal symptoms, but rather openly discuss their sex lives and possible adjustments.
Regarding menopausal symptoms, one of the participants speaks about the growing disparity between her and her partner’s sex drives. “Where it would take her a long time to do one orgasm, I could go three and four times”, she says. In response, the couple made a broader, not necessarily orgasmic definition of sex work for themselves. More recent findings from the study Sex in Midlife: Women’s Sexual Experiences in Lesbian and Straight Marriages confirm that “lesbian couples perform more intensive relationship work relative to straight couples” in order to “improve the quality, or increase the quantity of sex with spouses.”
However, one or even both partners going through menopause can put a strain on the relationship. “I can’t decide what’s worse – consecutive menopauses or simultaneous”, Rachel tells me, “Few relationships could withstand that level of shake up.”
Eventually, an institutional issue many queer menopausal people face is that they “are up against a lottery” when seeing GPs about their symptoms, as Tania Glyde puts it. “Society’s structural ageism and misogyny means they may also be patronised and infantilised”, which can be challenging for queer and trans people “especially if they have to do a lot of explaining.”
Thus, in preparation for your visit to your GP, Tania recommends printing up the NICE guidelines, which are instructions on how doctors should deal with menopausal patients. “Don’t take no for an answer, or accept being pushed on meds like antidepressants or HRT if you don’t want them”, Tania stresses. “If someone refuses to either treat or test you, ask them to write in your notes that they have refused. If it’s clear your doctor doesn’t have experience here, ask to be referred to a specialist menopause clinic.”
In the end, whether horrendous, magnificent, or both – everyone of us experiences the menopause differently and it is by sharing our stories that we make our voices heard.
This article first appeared in the December 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!