Every so often — especially in transitioning — I’ll have one of those “why didn’t someone tell me this sooner?” moments. Because we’re in the age of information, I think a lot of folks in the transgender community just assume we already have the information we need.
But in actuality? Many of us don’t.
I’ve found that when I share some of what’s surprised me, there’s always a decent number of trans people who are also hearing it for the first time. While transition is a process of discovery, I can’t help but feel that life would be a hell of a lot easier if we did a better job of sharing what we’ve learned with others.
This article, then, is a mishmash of some of the clever, enlightening, or flat-out surprising things that I would’ve appreciated being told at the beginning of my transition.
As someone who is genderqueer — and more or less moves through the world as a “trans guy” — a lot of what I’m sharing here will be more relevant to folks on the “trans masc” end of the spectrum, though I do think there’s a little something here for everyone.
Not everything here will be life-changing information by any means, but I hope that at least a few things here will be helpful to someone who needs it.
1. There are (sneaky) ways to make your facial hair look less weird.
If Oprah gets to have her own “favorite things,” so do I, right?
If you read literally any guide about how to “pass” as a trans guy, they’ll tell you to shave your face. And as someone who had the misfortune of having much of their facial hair grow in thick but blonde (thanks, Dad), I get the impulse — my facial hair isn’t exactly uh, impressive.
The problem is, that little bit of facial hair? It’s often the deciding factor in whether or not my barista is going to misgender me, you know? So as counterintuitive as it may be, my beard has to stay, no matter how ridiculous and patchy it may look. Whenever I’m without it, I’m more dysphoric, and misgendered a lot more often.
We live in the age of makeup though, my friends. Drag kings have got this down to science, and I was fortunate enough to learn that there are ways to make your facial hair a little more… cohesive.
Glossier’s “boy brow,” aka beard magic.
Drag kings often use mascara to create something of an imitation beard, but there’s actually an even better option for those of us who already have some facial hair and just need it to, you know, make itself known.
The brand Glossier (who hasn’t asked me to plug this or paid me to promote it in any way at all — I’m just eternally grateful that it exists) has a brow pomade called “boy brow” that helps make facial hair appear fuller, darker, and more filled in.
It’s subtle, but for the blonde hair on my face that refuses to show up, this has been a miraculous discovery.
I am never misgendered when I apply this to my face. It’s intended for brows, but it clearly has some benefits for trans folks like myself who need a little more “oomph” with their facial hair.
Observe the magic in action:
Half of my face without “boy brow” (left), half where it’s used on my facial hair (right).
I’m personally using the brown shade that Glossier offers because it looks more natural on my face, though it does come in black as well!
If you look, you’ll notice that (1) I’m able to connect my sideburn completely, (2) my mustache is darker and has a more noticeable shadow, and (3) my beard has a lot less patchy weirdness to it.
I don’t necessarily apply this to all of my facial hair on a regular basis, but I did it here (apart from the parts of my face, like my cheeks, that I already shave regularly) just to give you an idea of what it would look like on each part of my face.
And it makes a lot more of a difference than you’d expect!
The full effect, both sides! This is after a night out, so it lasts, I promise.
When I started doing this, a lot of people asked if I’d increased my testosterone dose, and no one was the wiser.
Not to mention, the misgendering really plummeted. All those “passing guides” that told me to go for the clean shave? They might’ve benefitted from knowing that this stuff exists.
But most importantly, I’m more comfortable. There’s this weird idea that using makeup to appear more masculine is somehow an unacceptable thing, but for me, it’s helped with my gender dysphoria and it’s changed the level of confidence I feel when I step out the door.
So before you shave your whole face in dismay, please know that this could be an option for you! Drag performers have been using mascara and brow pomade for ages, and it’s worth a try if having facial hair makes you feel more comfortable.
2. If you can’t find an LGBTQ+ therapist, you might be looking in the wrong place.
Real talk, having a therapist that’s in your own community makes a huge difference.
And you might be rolling your eyes and saying, “Well, OBVIOUSLY, Sam.” But I’m reiterating this point because I’m blown away by just how much of an impact this has had in my experiences with therapy.
Healing within your own community is a distinctly different thing from doing this kind of work with someone outside of it.
For the last year, I’ve been doing online therapy with a transgender and queer therapist. And that connection became even more important to me when, at the beginning of this year, one of my close friends (also transgender) died by suicide.
Having a therapist who knew what it was like to lose someone this way, and understood from a place of lived experience what queer grief is really like, became an invaluable part of healing for me.
I do know that therapy isn’t accessible to everyone, and it can be difficult to find a transgender or queer therapist on top of that.
But with the increasing accessibility of trans and queer therapists through online platforms like Talkspace (I wrote about this here), it’s worth investigating if you have the means. Some of these platforms even offer financial support, so click around and see what you can find!
3. Learning self-massage was the smartest thing I could’ve done for top surgery recovery.
Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am not athletic and am, by and large, a very sedentary person (which is a nice way of saying that I’m a couch potato). But when I discovered a local yoga class that used “therapy balls” to teach self-massage, I was uh, intrigued.
Because after top surgery, I was wound so tight that a massage sounded like exactly what I needed.
After top surgery, my body was kind of a mess — more than I’d really expected. A few months out, I still had very little range of motion. I had built up scar tissue and lumps and knots — especially on the sides of my chest, in my pecs, and between my shoulders — that I was convinced would be there forever.
Surgery is bodily trauma, you know? Even if it’s entirely wanted and amazing, we still have to heal after all is said and done.
So I started learning self-massage with therapy balls (my instructor uses the book “The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body” by Jill Miller, but I’m sure there are others). My hope was that it would help me recover a little faster after surgery.
It definitely worked.
After a few weeks, I had regained full mobility and range of motion, including in my arms and shoulders. I am now even more flexible than I was prior to surgery. A lot of the built up tissue is entirely gone. The kicker? I’m only six months post-op at this point, and even my surgeon was amazed by how quickly I was able to recover.
A lot of people, as it turns out, use therapy balls and self-massage to manage chronic pain, as many of the exercises can be modified to suit virtually any body. Many of the techniques are exactly what a physical therapist would do with you in recovery — the only difference is that you’re using a tool to apply that pressure to yourself!
Google it, friends! Please! It’s something you can easily do at home, and while everyone’s body is different, finding ways to restore your range of motion after a major surgery is super important.
4. Binding your chest for a long time can affect top surgery results in some people.
Okay, I know, this should be common knowledge by now… but it definitely isn’t.
Apart from the documented (and expected) issues with binding — including pain, shortness of breath, overheating, that sort of thing — I actually didn’t know that binding could impact surgery results.
First of all, a disclaimer: Binding is critical and essential care for trans people, even with all risks taken into account. The relief it provided me from dysphoria isn’t something I would trade, even given all the nonsense I had to put up with during the years that I was binding and after.
But in the interest of transparency, I do want people to know that one of the lesser-discussed effects of binding your chest is the breakdown of breast tissue. Again, many of us know this, but we take on the attitude of, “Well, I’m getting top surgery later, so what does it matter?” (Hi, I thought that, too.)
But what I was surprised to find is that binding my chest impacted my top surgery results later on.
For those of us who go on to get a mastectomy, our tissue being broken down can affect our post-op results. Speaking for myself, as someone who opted to get nipple grafts, it became more difficult to construct them because that tissue was softer and broken down.
This means that some of us might notice that our nips look a little less distinct from the tissue surrounding them (in other words, they can wind up flatter than they might appear on cisgender men).
I am still thrilled with my top surgery results, but I think I would’ve opted for top surgery earlier had I known that the longer I was binding, the more that breakdown could affect the cosmetic results.
I was binding for about six years, so that obviously had a huge impact on the extent to which I experienced this. But it’s helpful to keep in mind if you’re trying to decide how long you should wait for surgery, or how often you should bind!
5. Testosterone exists in other forms besides injections.
I am realizing that not everyone knows this, so I’m including it on this list because I think it’s important. Time and time again, I hear trans folks saying, “I can’t start T because I don’t want to do the shots!” Lucky for you, there are options!
There are pills, though they can be kind of harsh for our bodies. More commonly, folks who are averse to giving themselves shots have the option of getting testosterone as a patch or in gel form.
I personally tried the patches and was allergic to the adhesive (fun times!). I have been using the gel for over two years now, and it’s terrific. It’s basically like hand sanitizer that’s a little thicker and has testosterone in it, and you rub it into your upper-arms and let it dry every day.
Super simple. No needles required!
6. Finasteride isn’t always safe — especially for trans folks with preexisting mental health conditions.
I talked about this quite a bit in this blog post, but it bears repeating. There has been some speculation that finasteride (otherwise known as proscar/propecia) can lead to suicidal thoughts in some people who take it, and some studies are showing that there are elevated risks of self-harm and depression when taking it.
It’s usually prescribed to slow down hair loss, which makes it a pretty common prescription amongst trans folks. But the reality is, its impact on trans people specifically hasn’t been studied much at all.
So, story time.
The only two times I’ve ever been psychiatrically hospitalized for suicidality came a few weeks after starting finasteride, with those episodes subsiding only after I discontinued it. I have never in my life experienced this level of depression and suicidality that I experienced while taking finasteride.
This is anecdotal, but there are many reports of others who experienced similar side effects that the World Health Organization is monitoring at this time.
Because all of these studies have only been done on cisgender men, we don’t actually know how it could impact transgender people, who are already more vulnerable to mental illness and suicidality.
All that said, what this means is that trans folks (or really, anyone) taking finasteride should proceed with a lot of caution! If you notice any increased depression or suicidal ideation, make sure you let your clinician know.
7. You can have gender dysphoria without realizing it.
I wrote about this at a pretty nauseating length in my open letter to truscum, but I’d like to highlight it a little bit here (and speak to, you know, the rest of us who aren’t transmedicalists), because I think it’s important information:
No one else saw me as ugly or ever said I was, but it was a feeling I couldn’t shake. I felt like, no matter what I did, nothing made that feeling go away.
I just thought it was a stupid teenager thing. Except that “stupid teenager thing” didn’t go away and I became a self-hating, uncomfortable, gross-feeling adult.
If you had met me when I came out in 2012, you would’ve said that there was no freaking way I was transgender. I knew I was miserable and I knew I hated how I looked, but “dysphoria” wasn’t a part of my vocabulary yet. While it had always been there on some level, I didn’t have any way to interpret what it meant.
And this isn’t an uncommon experience, trust me. Plenty of trans people come out and are still learning how to describe their experiences. For those folks, it’s sometimes much, much later on that they realize there was some dysphoria happening for them. Sometimes the label comes first — and that’s valid.
I didn’t grasp how severe it was for me until after surgery. Only when my dysphoria was considerably diminished did I understand just how heavy it was to begin with.
. . .
Some people also experience dysphoria only in the form of dissociation, or a state of unreality, numbness, or disconnection. They might not connect this to their gender at all, because it’s not an emotional state they can necessarily identify so quickly in the first place.
For trans people with other mental health challenges, trauma and mental illness might interfere with their understanding of their gender, and dysphoria becomes attributed to other causes (I also wrote about that here).
In other words, our brains work extra hard to try to protect us, which can make self-perception [of dysphoria] as a trans person a little wonky.
This is something that we, as a community, aren’t talking about nearly enough! Dysphoria is a very complex experience, and while we might not initially recognize it as such, there could be as many unique experiences of dysphoria as there are trans people.
So if you’re not sure that you’ve experienced dysphoria? That’s okay. Maybe you have and maybe you haven’t — or maybe you’ll understand it a little better with time. Your experiences are valid no matter what.
Transitioning is a learning experience, to be sure. Thankfully, it’s one that we can support each other through.
That’s why I love hearing from all of you in the community.
What are some things you wish you’d known sooner? What has been the most surprising part of transition for you?
Until next time,
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