The Springwater Corridor Trail in the Portland Metropolitan area spans 21 miles, and has housed upwards of 3,000 people experiencing homelessness at one time. In 2016, Portland State University (PSU) student and activist Lynn Hager was going through the trail handing out period kits, and was shocked by the diversity of menstruators and their lack of access to essential products like pads and tampons.
“I was going up to really anyone—men, women, however they identified—and was learning how many trans people were on the streets, how many people were really struggling because they couldn’t get access to pads and tampons at shelters.”
Hager also learned that gender non-conforming people face a similar struggle, often feeling like “they don’t exist” because no one works to get their needs met.
This experience sparked a new mindset in Hager, a cisgendered white woman who had already been frustrated by the lack of access she had to products at PSU.
“I heard about this, and I was like, ‘Holy shit. Trans people have periods. Homeless people have periods. Some trans people are homeless and they have periods.” And that was the beginning of Portland Menstrual Society (PMS).
Hager created PMS, her PSU-based non-profit, in the summer of 2016 to help service the needs of students, and has been steadily growing it ever since. A now-PSU Masters student in the Social Work program, Hager advocates for everyone’s right to access menstrual products, and does so largely through her leadership in PMS. PMS supports the idea that every person who experiences their period, regardless of gender or socioeconomic status, deserves access to safe restrooms and free menstrual resources.
PMS has serviced thousands of periods in the past two years, but operates as anti-capitalistically as possible.
In Hager’s words, “The goal of Portland Menstrual Society was really to not be conforming to the standards that are expected around menstruation.” More specifically, to not support the exploitation of menstruation for corporate success, but rather, to deconstruct the gendering of menstruation and question the meaning society has attached to the biological process.
In Chris Bobel’s book New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation, which has greatly influenced the mission of PMS, the associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston defines “menstruation” as a biological process with cultural meaning. In the culture of the United States, this process has come to be tied to notions of femininity, as young girls are often told that getting their first period is a sign of entering womanhood, and an act reserved for all women. However, some cis-women are biologically unable to menstruate, while some people who do not identify as female do, debunking the idea that the process is rooted in gender.
Since its founding, PMS has brought in students from different backgrounds and united them through the principle of menstrual equity for all people. Mason Pierce is one of those students, and recently became the PMS president. As an out-trans man and figurehead, Pierce has experienced gender-based violence firsthand. He has been targeted in public restrooms and reported being chased from the PSU campus by men with baseball bats. At times, Pierce has been unable to go to campus out of fear of being harassed for his identity, but these experiences have shaped him into a person who does not shrink from action, but rises to it.
“[These experiences] are what launched me into caring so much about this work,” reflects Piece, who knows what it is like to pass as a white male while still remembering the fear associated with being found out. He wants to help other students understand that regardless of their identity, there is space for them in the world – an idea championed by other PMS leadership as well.
On April 28, PMS held Portland’s first-ever intersectional Menstrual Symposium, a culmination of a week of workshops and speaker panels held at PSU. They operated with the goal of challenging the gendered narrative surrounding the act of menstruating by elevating the voices of entrepreneurs, politicians, artists and public figures involved in this line of work.
Jennifer Weiss Wolf was one conference speaker who approached the menstrual movement from a political lens. A published author and the Vice President for Development at the Brennan Center for Justice, Wolf has come to believe that law is a vehicle through which to communicate values, and that directly applies to the topic of menstruation. Last year, Wolf worked to pass the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, and did so largely through pushing lawmakers to consider menstruation — in this case, menstruation of women within New York prisons — from the perspective of people who menstruate themselves.
According to the campaign’s site, women are the fastest growing population in United States prisons, and the conditions they face directly threaten women’s reproductive health. In some prisons, women are denied adequate access to sanitary items forcing them to either purchase on commissary or go without proper supplies, a condition that Wolf is continuing to fight for through more legislation.
“People dying in our country from menstruation still isn’t enough for legal change,” she has found. But still, Wolf continues the fight, along with PMS and other advocate groups. She recognizes that before more trans-inclusive reform can be passed, an overall shift in public perceptions will need to take place, and that is likely years away.
This shift is something Fatima Pervaiz has also recognized. As the University of Oregon’s Women’s Center Program Director for the past three years, Pervaiz has had to advocate for funding of menstrual supplies and resources, often under the jurisdiction of men who still believe menstrual products should be marketed and distributed like a luxury good.
“On a federal level, I don’t see the social climate shifting anytime in the next few years. But I do see it shifting more, particularly as I observe more and more youth identifying as non-binary. I think that, in and of itself, is such a powerful representation of how we are going to be beyond the binary hopefully soon.”
For Hager and PMS, there is also a growing need for another shift in the menstrual movement: intersectionality and new forms of leadership. Hager believes that with any social movement, it is essential to have the people directly affected at the forefront, and has found a disturbing lack of representation of trans, non-binary and people of color in the menstrual movement.
“It’s really important for us to be highlighting the issues of people who are really affected,” she remarks.
Hager posits that the next step PMS can take toward inclusivity is reaching out to black women and trans people at school and authentically centering them in the conversation.
“We’re not doing that because we’re checking a box. We’re doing it because it’s the next steps.”
Pierce has also seen value in connecting through shared experiences and elevating the voices of everyone affected by this issue.
“I am president of Portland Menstrual Society, because I decided that I wasn’t going to be afraid anymore, and really thought that it was vital to talk about what it means to be trans and what it means to experience my period, and to stop editing my own story and switching my life around so that it fits an ideal more, a narrative.”
While there are different routes people can take to effect change, the members of PMS view conversation as central to each one. And although the way has not always been clear or direct for Hager, she has found this constant dialogue as one key constant. Throughout the last few years, spanning the Springwater Corridor Trail to the PSU campus, Hager has never stopped talking about the issues at hand to anyone who will listen.
“It’s been really interesting to see people change around me, just because I refuse to stop talking about it. And I think that’s exactly what it’s gonna take.”