Vancouver's Lunapads addresses neglected menstrual product needs of transgender and homeless people

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      Want to talk about menstruation? No? You're not alone.

      Lunapads cofounder Madeleine Shaw is well aware of this unfortunate fact. And she finds it shocking how persistent the taboo remains even in this century.

      "It's a basic human need," she told the Georgia Straight at Options for Sexual Health's 2017 Sexual and Reproductive Health Day breakfast. "This is about universal access to any form of service. People are given toilet paper so they can use the bathroom and if you don't have those products, it makes it really hard to get on with your life. They should be available in schools for free. They should be available in any form of shelter or housing but they're not."

      Why has it been overlooked?

      "Because it's not a need that resonates with the people in charge or it's something people don't want to hear about," Shaw said.

      Shaw, with a background in fashion design, teamed up with account Suzanne Siemens to launch Lunapads in Vancouver in 1993 to create healthy and positive menstrual products to care for both customers and the planet. Their products are washable and reusable, thereby keeping over 20 million disposable pads out of landfills every year.

      But that's not all.

      Lunapads has been striving to address the needs of two groups who have particularly borne the brunt of society's avoidance of discussing such issues: transgender and homeless people.

      Over the years, Siemens said they discovered varying needs and desires for different styles by talking with customers.

      "We have learned that there are customers who don't identify even as women yet they still menstruate," Siemens said. "They basically told us that our styles and underwear choices do not reflect their gender expression."

      Examples of Lunapads products, including their new boxer briefs
      Craig Takeuchi

      In response, Lunapads released a line of boxer-brief underwear in October. The underwear ($37.99) has an inner lined panel with leakproof absorbancy. The adjustable design allows wearers to change removable insert as needed.

      Although it was designed particularly for transgender men (some of whom menstruate), Siemens said anyone who doesn't identify with ultra-feminine styles can wear it. She said it can be worn by "people who want to have a very non-binary expression of their style" or who do not want "to be forced into cultural norms of what women should look like". Or for those who simply want to wear something comfy while binge-watching.

      She says it's actually one of their most comfortable styles of underwear" and turned out to be one of their best product launches they've ever had.

      "It really is a testament to the importance of really listening to your customers and being open to creating new products," she said. "We feel it's important to let them know they are seen and heard, and included."

      Comedian Margaret Cho

      The company's sensitivity to both social and environment issues put them on comedian Margaret Cho's radar.

      Before Cho came to Vancouver to perform in 2014, she contacted Lunapads about their products before she arrived in town.

      "Since then, we've connected with Margaret Cho and provided donations because she's really an advocate of homeless people," Siemens said. "The challenge for homeless people is that they don't necessarily have access to washing facilities and our products are washable and reusable so we make sure when we do make donations to homeless shelters, they are supported by washing facilities or have access to it."

      Craig Takeuchi

      What many people probably don't realize, let alone even think about, is that one of the biggest demands among homeless people is not just food or clothes.

      "Menstrual products are actually one of the number one requested products of homeless people because there is an essential need and sometimes they can't even afford them," Siemens said.

      Shaw, who mentioned she was discussing this issue with the United Way at the time, explained how widespread this oversight has been.

      "Food banks don't necessarily stock feminine hygiene products, shelters don't necessarily stock them," she said. "On top of the indignity of being homeless or between homes and poor, people who menstruate don't necessarily have any access to menstrual products or showers…so it makes their lives even more uncomfortable and embarrassing than they really need to be and it's because people don't really think of it or don't want to talk about it so it's a bigger problem than people realize."

      Although today is International Women's Day (March 8), these issues are an everyday reality for trans, homeless, and other people that require further attention and discussion. As Shaw and Siemens have proven, addressing overlooked needs can not only be a key to success but can also contribute to greater awareness and social change.