Q&A with Emily Horgan, editor of So Hormonal: A Collection of Essays on Hormones

Crowdfunded, commissioned, written and edited during lockdown, September’s Hysterical Women book of the month is So Hormonal, an impressively comprehensive collection of personal essays on hormones and how they affect people’s everyday lives.

It includes essays on a whole range of hormonal issues – from the usual suspects like periods, acne, contraception and pregnancy, through to diabulimia (an eating disorder in which people with type 1 diabetes withhold insulin to lose weight), steroids, Addison’s disease (adrenal insufficiency), ADHD, cluster headaches, gender dysphoria, stress and more. Featuring a broad range of perspectives across different genders, sexualities, races, nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds, So Hormonal details the impact of many of the hormones that control and influence our everyday functioning.

I sat down with editor Emily Horgan to find out more about the conversation that she and co-editor Zachary Dickson hope to spark with their groundbreaking anthology.

SG: What made you choose hormones as your topic, and how did the book come about?

EH: Hormones are universal, but often they’re not really discussed in a universal way – it’s very gendered in public spaces. For me personally, I’ve always had an interesting relationship with hormones to say the least, particularly birth control. I feel like anyone who’s had experience with birth control can testify that it’s quite challenging to get right. From a very young age, I tried to strike that balance and failed miserably. I suffered with the full spectrum of PMS symptoms – vomiting from cramps when I was younger, all the way to hormonal acne in my mid 20s – all those things you’re never fully prepared for, and not willing to talk about publicly.

Even though I’m quite progressive and a feminist, I was still embarrassed for some reason. I found so much solace in online forums, places like Reddit, where there were so many people speaking about these experiences. It really helped me feel like I had a support network and what I was experiencing was normal. So I wanted to bring that feeling, and those little private spaces, into more of a public space. I floated the idea of doing an art piece to my partner Zach – who is also the co-editor – and he suggested a collection of essays might be a better idea, because it would be more voices than just my own own.

We worked with publisher Monstrous Regiment, who have a great track record for Kickstarter projects, using crowdfunding. I honestly had no idea it would be so popular though. When we put the call out for submissions, we got 85 pitches, so I guess that was a real testament to the appetite for something like this.

You obviously made a really conscious effort to broaden the conversation out to people of all genders, not just women. What did you want the book to say about the relationship between gender, hormones and identity?

We did make a conscious decision to get a super broad range of voices, and my eyes were definitely opened even further to the spectrum of hormone issues. I’d love to say I thought of all these topics when we started out on this project, but it was genuinely all down to the authors and their submissions. They completely exceeded my expectations as to what it would cover. That was a great lesson: using anthologies and collections of essays, having that broad range of voices and experiences, will always be better than just your own perspective on a topic. If I’d gone ahead and done something on my experience, it wouldn’t have been as wide reaching.

The title itself, So Hormonal, is quite tongue in cheek. For people who present as female, often when you get angry or upset, the assumption is that you’re hormonal and it’s seen as a negative thing. But I genuinely believe some people don’t understand that all genders have hormones. I think it’s down to lack of education, and the fact that people just don’t talk about the impact hormones have on us. Shame makes it really difficult to manage some of the issues people have with them.

When I show the book to people, they just assume it’s all about periods and women. Then, when they open that table of contents and see the 35 essays, touching on on so many different topics – written by so many people from different backgrounds, races, genders, sexualities, and how they all experience hormones – I think that diversity really blows people away. It certainly blew me away, and I think people will find a lot of learning in it, so I’m very proud of what it became.

How did you select which essays to feature?

It was so difficult. We divvied it up based on topic, because we wanted to get as many topics covered from as many different perspectives as possible. So for example, we wanted endometriosis to be spoken about, and we had people speak on it from different gender perspectives, different feelings towards it. We tried to take a topic and see if there was a way we could split it into different viewpoints. Another interesting one, for example, is steroids. We had someone talking on steroids from a bodybuilding experience, and then another person speaking on steroids from a chronic illness perspective. It was really about challenging people’s preconceived ideas and getting them to think more broadly about these particular topics.

Were there any essays you were particularly struck by?

They were all so so important, but I guess there were two different ways that I was struck by them. One was the essays that resonated really hard with an experience I’ve had – like, I totally get that, I’ve been that person. But then there were also the ones that struck me like, ‘wow, I’ve never even thought about that before’. So it was one or the other really.

A lot of the ones I found very interesting were ones that touch on the medical history of misogyny, racism and classism in healthcare. Those ones I think are so important, particularly now. We’re all very aware at the moment that we’re not taught enough about these issues, and that lack of knowledge puts people in danger when they try to access health care. It’s one thing being ignorant in a conversation in the pub, but it’s another thing having your life put at risk because the people treating you can’t identify a rash on the colour of your skin, or don’t ask your gender.

Absolutely. One of the essays I found most interesting was Hidden Ink Child’s, on being a trans man with endometriosis, where they write about how their gender expression altered their whole experience of treatment.

Their experience in particular was quite striking because I think there is a lot of resistance in the medical profession towards looking at treatments as genderless. I don’t think the people within the system are the problem, I think it’s the system. Obviously in several of the essays, the [healthcare professional] in question is either nice or not nice, or helpful or not, and there are some where they obviously could have been more supportive. But I think it’s systematic, like a lot of these things. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t just make it a little bit easier for the people who are getting these treatments. Periods are so gendered, and yet even for me as a cisgender female they were so shameful; imagine how difficult it must be if you’re a trans man or non-binary.

What do you hope readers take away from So Hormonal?

I guess the overarching thing is that everything is so intersectional, particularly when it comes to hormones. We live in a society where you’re never sure of what outcome you’ll get from treatment, and there are all these variables – gender, sexuality, race, class, and so on – that affect it. While our experiences with hormones might be challenging, our privileges and barriers to healthcare define how we’re going to experience them, and no one experiences things in quite the same way.

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