This year, when I’m not working with my clients, I’m doing a Masters in Counselling and Psychotherapy with the University of East London.
In brief: I’m doing my MA dissertation on queer menopause, and how therapists can best support and validate their LGBTQIA+ menopausal clients.
After looking at several dissertation ideas, this one stood head and shoulders above the rest. The idea crystallised after a day in December 2018 when I had conversations with about five different friends about our experiences. I sense a lot of excitement about the topic, especially as there is very little existing research out there.
UPDATE on 5th November 2019
I’m adding this for clarity, and making a few changes below. My call for participants has now ended and I am in the process of writing up my findings. Thank you very much to everyone who took part, and everyone who took the time to write to me.
I’m going to keep this post as simple as possible because this subject has many aspects to it. This is a qualitative study using Thematic Analysis. My aim is to open some doors, shine a light, and give a voice to those who have not yet been heard. I want to create a building block that will inspire others to doing further research in this area.
Call for Participants (now ended)
‘How can therapists best support and validate their queer menopausal clients?’
As my subject is counselling and psychotherapy, my research focus is on what queer menopausal clients would like their therapists to know. (‘Therapists’ could also extend to other health practitioners.) This question may evolve over time.
I am seeking to interview LGBTQIA+ identified people who have experienced perimenopause/menopause, and for whom my question above has resonance. I have ethical clearance from UEL.
You can contact me here.
First of all, what is menopause?
Menopause happens to people with ovaries, not all of whom will be women. (I am using a very specific definition of menopause in this section, and this is the main menopause to which my study refers, but not to the exception of all other experiences. More on this further down.) Put very simply, the body slows down oestrogen production and menstruation eventually stops. When menstruation has stopped for a year, the person is said to be post-menopausal. This all sounds quite straightforward. Many people might welcome their periods stopping and, if they were having PIV sex, losing the risk of getting pregnant.
In fact, fluctuating and diminishing oestrogen levels can have many different effects on the body and mind. People (and experiences vary widely) can experience hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, anxiety, depression, weight gain, memory loss, reduced libido, and thinning of the tissues around the vagina and urethra, leading to stress incontinence and increasingly painful penetrative sex.
Some barely notice anything at all. Others are so badly affected that their relationships fall apart and they have to stop work. Most fall somewhere along a spectrum between these two points.
Perimenopause – it starts much earlier than you think
If you’re under 40 and reading this (or even under 45), this may feel like something you don’t need to think about. But, actually, menopause can start in your late 30s. (And earlier if your ovaries were removed.) The first phase of menopause is known as perimenopause. Previously regular as clockwork periods may start to become more random. You may bleed more heavily at times. You may experience mood swings, and as hormone levels start to fluctuate, this may exacerbate existing physical and mental health issues.
No, I hadn’t heard of it either, once upon a time. Well, I kind of had, but there was no ‘official’ info so I took no notice of the changes that, now I look back, were clearly going on in my body from the age of 39 and perhaps even earlier.
LGBTQIA+ Menopause – a subject in need of a spotlight?
Where menopause is concerned, the media narrative, overwhelmingly, concerns cisgender heterosexual women – who are generally married to men, and who are experiencing loss of capacity (and desire) for penis-in-vagina sex. It is frequently framed around increased self-hatred due to the visible signs of ageing, and the idea that someone should be locked in increasingly desperate combat with their own body as their perceived attractiveness to men is reduced.
There are a number of peer-reviewed studies of lesbian experiences over the last 30 years. However, there is (that I have found so far) next to nothing out there about everyone else on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Bisexual women may pop up in studies, but in numbers so small that they slip through the cracks. And what if you are non-binary or trans? Or intersex? Or asexual?
Unfortunately, despite cisgender heterosexual women representing a large percentage of the menopausal population, the variation in medical advice and appropriate treatment for them is nothing short of a disgrace. Too many experience gaslighting and dismissal from doctors, despite the NICE guidelines. So the situation for anyone not cis or not heterosexual, who is concerned about their symptoms, could be much worse.
For example, someone AFAB (assigned female at birth) and non-binary may have a struggle when trying to access medical help as perimenopause starts to kick in. There are multiple pressures: (a) explaining menopause symptoms in the first place and being taken seriously (and this assumes the person realises what is happening in their body), (b) having to explain non-normative gender, and (c) if a person has existing mental or physical health problems, they may be exacerbated by fluctuating hormones. There may be a lot of confusion that adds to the person’s distress.
The point is, we just don’t know. Mystifyingly, the academic journals devoted to menopause that I have seen so far (I stress so far) barely mention LGBTQIA+ experiences. And the journals devoted to older LGBT adults barely mention menopause. The therapy journals barely mention menopause either – whether in terms of clients or therapists.
If you are reading this and thinking, ‘Hold on, what about X study/project?’ I will be very glad to hear from you.
Ignorance about our own bodies
One of my concerns is that so few people know what the early stages of menopause look like – (and this is across the whole ovary-owning population) – that many may miss out on a chance to understand their bodies better, and perhaps avert a future health issue. It may be that a person isn’t having problems, but would benefit from knowing what their body is doing.
Not all bad
It’s really important to say that menopause is not necessarily terrible – for some it is a very welcome rite of passage. Culturally, it is seen more negatively among white people in the west than in many other cultures. (There are also differences in experience and responses between classes and races.) But we are not given the choice in knowing about it. Systemic (and internalised) ageism causes society to relegate this subject to ‘silly old women’ and at times to make fun of it. This is not helping anyone, other than those who profit from insecurity.
I am wondering how the hormonal changes at menopause may interact with the hormones someone is already taking for gender affirmation/transition. At what point does the latter fully counteract the former? My sense is that this has not been studied much. I am also wondering about menopause, (or the idea of it), causing dysphoria for some transmasculine people – and not everyone wants to, or is able to, take hormones.
Queering gender – and sex?
If someone is living as a cis woman and then menopause comes along and removes her capacity to bear children and receive a penis in her vagina, is she still a woman? If the normative ‘rule’ is that the ‘only true sex’ involves a penis in a vagina, what does that mean for sex post-menopause, where this may cease to be viable? This embodied chronological ritual encourages a default queering of sex.
Other kinds of menopause
As above, my main focus is on the menopause that happens to people born with ovaries. However, it doesn’t feel right to talk about queer menopause and leave out people assigned male at birth (AMAB) who are taking hormones. Exogenous hormones can have a wide range of impacts on the body.
Who am I?
I’ve been in private practice in London for six years. I’m bisexual, and post-menopausal. You can find more about me and my work here.
If you would like to find out more about this study, or if you have some information or knowledge you would like to share, I would love to hear from you. You can contact me here.