I love being trans. Traveling while trans, not so much
It goes way beyond the airport security line.
I meditate before every flight, calming my nerves by focusing on the promise of a reunion with someone I love. In preparation, I curate a playlist based on the vibes of my destination, pack THC gummies for my anxiety, and tuck a book and journal into my carry-on. I compromise with the voice of my immigrant mother telling me to get to the airport ridiculously early and instead plan to arrive a sensible hour before boarding. Once I triple-check my essentials, I slump myself into an unassuming outfit, usually Adidas joggers and an oversized sweatshirt, and wrangle my long, layered, balayage wrapped into a bun. Despite the sacrifices I’ve made to transition — and finally be read as the woman I am — I cloak myself in masculine androgyny, hoping it shields me from experiencing the all-too-common transphobia of the TSA.
As I wait in the security line during my most recent trip to San Francisco, I catch myself glancing around and wonder how I’m being perceived (which I jokingly call a “trans pastime”) before quickly returning my gaze back to the gray terrazzo flooring. When it’s my turn to show the TSA agent my ID, I barely make out his voice asking me to pull down my mask over the thumping of my heart. I mumble a “sorry” and feel bashful as I expose the rest of my face for the officer to squint at and inspect.
I shudder recalling how much more terrifying this was before I changed my gender marker on my driver’s license early this past summer. It was a hard-won victory after waiting in the searing sun for over five hours in line, only to have the otherwise soft-spoken woman assisting me announce in a sudden booming voice so loud everyone in the room uncomfortably shifts, “So you’re a male to female?”
Previously, my photo ID was from 2016, before I started to shave my dark, thick facial hair and before all of the fillers, Botox, laser hair removal, estrogen, and plastic surgery made my former self unrecognizable. I still remember the cartoon-like double-takes of one particular TSA agent whose jaw I could see drop despite his mask. His eyes ping-ponged for so long I was sure I would combust from the hot stares of travelers impatiently waiting behind me. I remember holding my breath to curtly state, “I’m trans.” His head shook in disgust as he spit out, “just go.” I still scare myself wondering what other options he might have been considering before letting me go.
Back to my more recent trip to SF: My vision blurs and my fingertips buzz as I approach the body scanner. Practically in a panic, I place my belongings in the bins, terrified of drawing any attention to myself. The TSA officer scrutinizes me, furrows his brows in what seems like pity, and asks, “do you want to be scanned as a man or a woman?”
I answer, “a man,” and proceed without incident. I ignore the fact he clocks me as trans and instead choose to be grateful he asked at all. As explained on TSA’s page for transgender passengers, most officers press a button to designate male or female based on assumptions. When scanned as a woman, the alarm picks up an “anomaly” in my groin area, and I would be invasively patted down — by a woman if lucky, but fear stops me from protesting when it’s a man. I consider it a good omen if I can avoid the body scanners and walk through metal detectors instead, a visceral relief.
While the challenges of traveling while trans extend further than just our experiences with the TSA, this is one of the first barriers of entry we tend to face. It sometimes where our community’s conversations on this subject begin. “The whole process of going through security ... it makes me feel ashamed of my gender, like I have to apologize for simply being myself,” says Heather Denton, a trans woman from Carrboro, North Carolina. Denton describes to me a degree of mental preparation that I know all too well. “The trans experience is riddled with little indignities and reminders of our otherness.”
Being other’d, as Denton points out, presents dangers to both our physical and emotional wellbeing. When I’ve flown abroad, I’ve worried about their laws regarding gender identity and sexual orientation and not knowing the language well enough to navigate issues of gender. When choosing a bathroom, I found that using the women’s bathroom puts me at risk of being accused of being a predator. So I add weight to my stride, widen my stance, change my posture and mannerisms, and use the men’s room. It’s a small yet powerful reminder that my gender identity is still rejected by many parts of society.
When driving, I worry about needing roadside assistance or being pulled over and being hate-crimed. Stopping at rural gas stations and seeing Confederate flags is paralyzing. On my travels, I have been told to “go back to where I’m from” (I’m an Asian woman), misgendered, catcalled, called slurs, threatened in bathrooms, groped in public, and had ride shares drive off after deeming my queerness and gender authenticity a contamination. Experiencing racism, homophobia, and transmisogyny somewhere I’m unfamiliar with is infinitely more unsettling.
Every trans person I know has horrifying stories about #TravelingWhileTrans, which only exacerbates the fear. If you’re trans and feeling anxiety about air travel, you can refer to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s page on airport security where they provide travel advice and how to file complaints if faced with improper conduct or discrimination. If you are an ally, please step up to keep trans people safe. Accompany your trans friends when going through security or changing government documents, make sure they get to their destinations safely, educate others, and intervene when witnessing transphobia.
Maybe one day, we won’t have to face such excruciating choices when traveling while trans. I wish I knew that no matter where I traveled, there would be people there to advocate for me, to treat me as a human worthy of protection. I dream of being able to travel in ways that affirm me as a trans woman without the extra baggage of fear and shame. Until then, we will continue to assert our right to live with dignity in order to travel towards the future we deserve.