By Aaron Rose
“I don’t want to werewolf,” I said to my doctor nervously. “Not overnight.” I was at my first appointment about starting hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in the form of testosterone. I was trying to explain that I wanted to take my time. I wasn’t looking to rush toward some cookie cutter version of passable cis maleness. In fact, I couldn’t even really picture what I wanted to look like.
I knew that I had grown up idolizing the floppy haired boys of the 90s, with their impish grins and exuberant physicality and silky manes. But as a limp-wristed, big-hearted, female-assigned-at-birth queer, I was worried about how T might affect me. I had heard stories about T turning sensitive people aggressive and cold, turning radical feminists into misogynistic jerks.
I had a queer community who already witnessed me fully—using he/him pronouns and validating my non-binary identity that was usually boy but never man or male.
So why did I need T?
On a physiological level, I knew that testosterone was right for me. My body needed it, hungered for it like a too-late dinner after a long day. But on an emotional level, I was paralyzed, wracked by immobilizing guilt.
I was afraid of losing the part of myself that cries at Pixar movies and gathers my friends into huge hugs and composes love letters to my beloveds and really, really listens to my people when they’re hurting. I was afraid of embodying toxic masculinity. I was afraid of becoming (even more of) a stranger to myself.
But here I am, having taken testosterone for a year now, and I can tell you some things I’ve found to be true for me so far. I hope that my experience can help others, especially non-binary folks, feel empowered to trust their guts and make healthcare decisions from a place of confidence and strength.
1. Masculinity is privileged in our world.
Masculinity is frequently a source of violence. Anyone who moves through the world as a masculine-presenting human has a responsibility to check their privilege, make space for feminine folks, and do the work of dismantling the patriarchy in their relationships and communities. But choosing to take a masculinizing hormone to better align one’s body and spirit is not inherently a violent patriarchal act. In fact, I’d argue that anything so bravely done by trans people in the interest of self-love is an act against the patriarchy. It’s how we choose to embody our masculinity that makes the difference.
2. Taking testosterone does not mean you are a man, unless you want it to.
You are not going to transform into a roid-raging bro overnight, or probably ever. You can be non-binary and take T. You can be femme and take T. You can use he/him pronouns and take T and still not be a boy or a man. Remember when second-wave feminists cleared up for us that biology does not equal destiny? Well, that’s still true. The gender binary does not magically reappear when people shift their hormonal homeostasis.
3. You do not have to hate your body to take testosterone.
You do not have to feel trapped in your body. You do not have to pine for a full beard or muscled forearms or an “M” on your driver's license. Sensationalizing talk show hosts and gatekeeping medical professionals would have us believe that we must loathe our current form in order to undergo something as seemingly drastic as hormone replacement therapy.
But that’s just not true. I never hated my body. I simply had a slippery shifting sense of unease that I couldn’t quite place or shake. My sense of self, my reflection in the mirror, flickered. I didn’t know what I wanted to look like, but I knew I wanted to be able to look at myself and see a whole person. Wanting to try T is reason enough to start.
4. Testosterone will not automatically make you aggressive, irritable, and misogynistic.
T will not automatically dull your emotions and turn you into a stereotypical blundering, bewildered boy who doesn’t understand why his partner is upset and has the appetite of a wild animal. T is powerful, but it’s not that powerful. You’re still you.
Yes, over time your voice will deepen, your shoulders will broaden. Your skin will thicken, but your heart does not have to. These days, I feel more emotionally intelligent and able to support my loved ones than ever before. Now that I’m more comfortable in my own skin, I’m able to meet others with deeper vulnerability and compassion.
5. Every shot is a choice.
Deciding to begin HRT is often compared to buying a one-way ticket to a different continent, with no option for a return trip. But really it’s more like a slow and steady hike, where every week is a choice to continue along the path. At any time, you can pause, you can go faster or slower, you can even turn around and go back a little ways. Every shot is a choice.
This process is rarely linear. And we are all always changing all the time. No matter what, you’re going to be a different you in six months or two years or four decades. Starting HRT is only one of many life choices you may or may not make that will shift the direction of your journey.
It’s difficult to characterize how exactly testosterone has changed my life. Since starting T a year ago, everything is both different and the same.
Life as a testosterone-based human is in some ways indistinguishable from the pre-T years, except that at every turn I seem to be discovering more and more of myself. It’s as if I’d been living my life in the front hallway of a home that I am only now realizing has more and more rooms, cozy and brightly lit and familiar and mine. Life has a new quality of spaciousness now.
I still cry, I still empathize deeply, I still love fiercely. But my muscles stand out more, my voice is less foreign, my face flickers less in the mirror. I think a little less about my physical body and my feelings about it, and a little more about what I’m doing with my life—creative projects, relationships, activism. I feel soft and sturdy, flexible and grounded. I’m more me than ever before.
Trans people have a unique opportunity to strip back the veneer of patriarchal masculinity, of biological essentialism, of binary notions of sex and gender, and say, “There's a different way to do this.” It's up to you to decide what trying HRT means about your identity and place in the world.
Finally, your experience with HRT may be completely different from mine, but that’s the point. Trust your gut. You know what you need.
Aaron Rose (he/him/his) is an education strategist, curriculum developer, and activist who believes in the power of education to fuel social change. A lifelong New Yorker, Aaron is an avid history buff, a Harry Potter fan, and a reluctant recent coffee convert. Find Aaron online @aaronxrose and aaronxrose.com.