Please Step Over Here: The Perils Of Traveling As A Trans Woman

I’m a girl on the move. Between a long-distance relationship, science conferences, science-fiction conventions and a general love of random adventures, I’ve managed to log well more than 15,000 miles of travel in the last year alone. I think I’ve travelled by just about every mode of transport available in that period: car, bus, airplane, train, boat, TARDIS, submarine, etc. Wanderlust is my nature, and I’ve long hoped to set foot on all seven continents. Unfortunately, because I’m a trans woman, globe-trekking (and even North-America-trekking) comes with a considerable amount of risk and hassle. Queer folks of all stripes have extra complications when the travel; after all, the world is full of places where LGBTQ people are not welcome. But, a number of specific factors put trans people in a category all their own when it comes to incurring an onslaught of hassle, harassment, and danger for even the most mundane of trips.

Perhaps one of the largest and most common difficulties we face have to do with those little cards with unflattering pictures on them. Before our legal name change, we’re often stuck with a name on our legal IDs that conflicts with our presentation, and that tends to catch the notice of government types. It can lead to everything from extra touchy-feely time and other “enhanced” screening from the TSA to lengthy questioning and/or entry-refusal from Customs and Immigration. Unfortunately, even after changing our names, we’re often stuck with an improper gender marker on our IDs due to draconian laws that require bottom surgery before they’re willing to change an M to an F, or vice-versa. That adds a huge complication to traveling by air, as you are required to declare your “legal gender” to the TSA when buying your ticket, and presenting in “conflict” with the gender that appears on your ID is likely to earn you some additional TSA attention. As Autostraddle Contributing Editor Mey Rude, a trans woman, wrote in our recent Travel Rituals roundtable, “I’ve been repeatedly misgendered and had TSA agents read my birth name off my ID, look at me, and shout my birth name at me, asking why that’s my name.”

This is made even more complicated by the current body-scanning systems (which have dubious results to begin with) that are based on sex. Trans bodies may not fit the computerized model of either sex, meaning trans people are far more likely to have to endure pat-downs or other additional screening measures anyway. Unfortunately, the TSA also appears to have some institutional problems when it comes to how it treats transgender travelers. An Al-Jazeera report earlier this year revealed that the TSA has violated its own protocols with regards to trans people. Obviously, no one is excited to spend more time with the TSA, particularly a group as at risk for harassment and abuse as trans folks, so many simply won’t fly.

Arina P Habich / Shutterstock.com

photo by arina p habich / via shutterstock

Before my name change, I avoided airplanes and crossing international borders altogether. The dissonance between my clearly-boy name and obviously-girl presentation caused enough awkward situations with bartenders and bouncers; the mere thought of dealing with the TSA or Customs was enough to make my stomach do backflips. National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling has noted that “transgender people end up as collateral damage in TSA’s security theater. Any security system that relies on gender and ‘anatomical anomalies’ will always disparately affect transgender and gender non-confirming people.”

When I flew for the first time in many years last January, I spent hours going over the current TSA procedures for transgender people so that I was prepared for every eventuality. I carried my letter from my therapist, a copy of my name change order, and a letter from doctor explaining my gender, hoping to cover any objection the TSA may have. I even went as far as to carry the number for the local ACLU office, just in case things got ugly. These days I fly pretty regularly, but my anxiety levels still skyrocket every time I step into the security lines. I seem to run about a 50/50 risk that the agent who looks at my ID will misgender me, and the full-body scanner always seems to find something “suspicious” between my legs that requires an entirely-too-intimate check— and often disgusted look— from the nearest lady screener.

A transgender woman (who chose to remain anonymous) told me she had a similar experience with the TSA. After passing through the scanner, she was stopped by a TSA officer who called her “sir.” “I corrected him by loudly saying ma’am,” she told me. “The machine probably picked up on my rather obvious boobs. So he switched it over to the correct gender and had me step back inside. Now, I was tucking that day, but the machine picked up on my genitals anyway, and decided to flag me.” She had no choice but to consent to the subsequent pat-down — she needed to get home, somehow. “At least a woman was the one who did the pat down,” she explained, “but I definitely considered that non-consensual touch under coercion. And when I’m talking about touch, I mean my inner thigh and a light brushing of my genitals. That ended up triggering me really badly.”

Even before we book that plane ticket and endure the prodding of the TSA, we’re forced to deal with just how inherently limited our travel options are. One of the most heartbreaking moments of loss I felt during transition was realizing just how many places in the world that were now completely closed to me. Aside from Western Europe and a few places in Asia, much of the world has a big “off limits” sign on it for the transgender community. Much of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America are extremely dangerous for trans people. This means I’ll probably never get to see Petra, which my girlfriend refers to as the most beautiful place she’s ever seen. I’ll never see Valley of the Kings like I’ve dreamed about since I was a child. I’ll never see New Delhi, Jakarta, Istanbul, Tangier, Rio de Janeiro, or dozens of the other places that have been on my list since I was a teenager.

“Ok”, you might say, “so a lot of international travel is out, but you can still travel domestically pretty freely, right?” Well, no, I can’t really do that either. In many parts of the US, I could still be arrested for using the women’s restroom, and would probably get tossed in the men’s jail to boot. In fact, Arizona was moving in that direction last year, so I actually skipped an important scientific conference in Phoenix where I had research to present because I wasn’t sure that I’d be safe. When in South Carolina for Christmas this year with my family, I endured stares, rude comments, and misgendering just about every day. A short trip to rural North Carolina for a funeral didn’t go much better. Mississippi recently legalized discrimination if it happens for religious reasons, so I could be refused anything from a hotel room to emergency room assistance for being trans, and a number of other states are considering similar legislation.

“Hmmm,” you might say, “just avoid the South, then.” Sadly, something as benign as a bathroom stop on a road trip can turn into an ordeal trans people even in ostensibly accepting areas. I’m still often nervous to make even relatively short car trips around the midwest by myself. My home state of Michigan has never felt particularly friendly to trans people in the wide expanses between our urban centers. I remember once driving straight from Detroit to Chicago without stops for gas, food, or bathrooms because I was too nervous about what I might encounter in the more rural stretches in between. A quick stop for gas on a trip up north earned me the stares of nearly everyone in the store; an emergency bathroom break at a fast-food restaurant in Ohio had a woman threatening to call the cops as I ran out the door.

Mey, who lives in southeastern Idaho and does most of her traveling through or to Utah, has similar fears about traveling through a “frighteningly religious and conservative area that’s notorious for being anti-LGBT.”  She told me, “because of that, I’m often afraid to stop at smaller looking rest stops or gas stations that I find in Idaho and Utah, and I try to make sure I only stop at ones that are in bigger towns or places that seem more safe.”

In talking to a number of other trans people about their travel difficulties, I heard many of the same themes I have encountered: hassle, harassment, and complications. Most people I spoke to had had some manner of difficulty with the TSA, many had unfortunate encounters with other law enforcement, and everyone talked about how scary and dangerous finding a bathroom can be.

Leina, a trans woman from São Paulo, Brazil, told me that she’s thankfully not subjected to problems relating to her trans status at home, but as soon as she leaves home, like when she visits her parents in a neighboring town, problems began. “People point and laugh to their heart’s content,” she recalls. She gets harassed consistently, like people shouting “that’s a girl, that’s a tr*nny” or praying loudly as she passes, which she knows that they think “(verbally) harassing a trans girl is backlash-free.” Leina said that when she travels further into the countryside, “things get really ugly. I am constantly solicited for paid sex, even while walking with my family and people get aggressive when I refuse. Aside from that, violence and death threats are common in the countryside.”

Obviously, I’m not allowing all of these complications to prevent me for traveling all together. I still hop on a place every few weeks to see my girlfriend, my convention and conference schedules haven’t slowed at all, and I’m definitely planning some kind of adventure for next summer. It’s more doing my research, knowing my rights, being prepared, and keeping my head up. I still plan to travel to the world— it’s just disappointing that my world is a little bit smaller.

Avatar of Mari Brighe

Mari is a queer lady scientist and educator from Detroit, who skillfully avoids working on her genetics dissertation by writing about queer and trans life, nerd culture, feminism, and science. You can frequently find her running around at science-fiction conventions giving panels on consent culture and LGBT topics or DJing at fantastically strange parties. She is a contributing writer for TransAdvocate, maintains a personal blog at TransNerdFeminist, and can frequently be found stirring up trouble (and posting selfies) on Twitter.

Mari has written 10 articles for us.

28 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    I’ve certainly experienced much of this, from the terror of the bathroom to the grope of the crotch….followed by the groper frozen in surprise….to the awkward silence…to the, “please wait here” while the officer of the Dutch airport security went to gether male colleague. I will say that it’s getting much better, though it’s hard for ne to gauge how much of that is that I’ve acquired a good deal of passing privelege (thank you, E2 and P4!), how much of it is that I have my ID changed now, and how much of it is that the TSA members are more likely to have gotten the memo. Flying is no longer an issue for me…so maybe that’s a source of hope for early transitioners? I, too, am sad about the amount of the world I now feel is closed to me. But this, too, may change in time.

  2. Thumb up 7

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    Gawd, so much truth in this article.

    I live in New Orleans (a queer heaven in the deep south) but my mom lives in Kentucky so it often requires me to drive the full length of Mississippi then then memphis and small towns all the way up.Needless to say it was the most nerve wrecking experience of my life.

    I will say that the best, and most comfertable experience ive had was taking Amtrak to A-Camp this past May. No weird gas stations in the middle of nowhere, youre not trapped in your seat, and it just seems to be a much more inviting crowd on trains (at least in my experience, only misgendered by one totally clueless guy and it wasnt the johovas witness sitting next to me) I plan on doing a round the country train trip sometime next year, i figure as long as i stick to major cities ill be fine.

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    I’m getting a little panicked just reading this, as someone in the very earliest stages of transition. I sure as hell hope that Nancy is right that things are getting better.

    Also this: thank you, thank you Autostraddle for providing and being a safe and welcoming online space.

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    I avoided traveling during a lot of my transition and I did pretty well with that. I had one boss that would invariably make me go to the most back woods weird and unsafe places after I transitioned on the job. Luckily it was all within the state and I could drive there, and that gave me a little sense of safety and security.
    My new job has me going a lot farther around the country and it has been very stressful with TSA. I’m not sure if I’ll ever really be OK but I need the job so I do what they say and its better to experience some things than just stay at home all the time.

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    Good article! The one thing worth mentioning is how much easier it is now that US passports can be altered without having to have SRS. Back when I transitioned, I had a number of trips I had to make using my “old” passport and it wasn’t fun. Passport mismatches pretty much tag you for being singled out and even humiliated by still clueless TSA employees (supposedly they’ve had training on these issues, but I’m skeptical). Ultimately, around 2006(?) the State Department changed it so you could alter your passport if you could prove you were going out of the country to get SRS (which I eventually did). The current policy is way better. No, it doesn’t make you safer if you’re in other countries or parts of the US (I’ve had to think about this a lot in my travel decisions), but it’s a piece of the puzzle.

    It’s nice to say ‘passing’ is a old, oppressive concept (which it is), but it still has a profound impact on trans people’s safety, options and life experience which can’t be denied… then there’s all the crap other women travelers experience as well.

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    While this is obviously something that needs attention and change, I can’t believe how this piece completely missed intersectionality wrt to race. I mean, you’re talking about TSA and borders and things, and you didn’t feel the need to mention its LOADS different for a tpoc than a white trans person? Even when presenting as their birth gender, a person of color is going to be harrassed or worse by the TSA and border patrol. You spoke to and quoted TPOC but you missed that major point.

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    I was about to mention that

    + I hope that white US citizens who complain about not being able to travel to “exotic places” like Jakarta, New Delhi etc realize that most people who live there can’t travel to the US because of visa requirements.

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    That makes my blood boil! It’s bad enough being just afraid to go to certain places, like Russia and most of the middle east and africa, because of the horrific persecution of lgbq(etc) people. But when you’re lgbq(etc) you can always just hide your queerness if you really, really want to have a particular experience. I can’t imagine the indignation the “t” in our impossible acronym must feel at being completely barred from certain experiences altogether. Likewise with TSA harassment of POC.. it makes me want to break something. My heart goes out to you.

    @Andreea yeah, US immigration and visitation policy is bullshit. I’ve heard a lot about it from my non-American friends. It’s intentionally classist and racist. America being an asshole has consequences for American travelers though, too. unlike my european, canadian, and japanese friends, one of the only places i can get a working holiday visa is Australia, since america doesn’t allow them, most countries say, “well fuck you, your citizens can’t have them either”. There are a number of countries I can’t even enter without a really complicated itinerary, if at all (cuba, Iran, North Korea) Also, visas to certain countries who are snubbed by the US are, pretty understandably, twice as expensive to obtain for American citizens as citizens from other countries (my bloody visas for vietnam and laos cost around $200. $200! just to cross a border! ouch ), which is fine if you’re Oprah, but often means the barring of working class americans from such experiences. Certainly not to gloss over (usually white) American privilege.. oh poor me and my vacations….. But it certainly puts a big underscore on how frustrating the situation is.

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      US citizens can go to Iran and North Korea, they just need a visa. You can’t go to Cuba because your own government forbids it, otherwise Cuba is pretty lenient with visas and encourages tourism. Most countries would love to have more American tourists, the lack of working holiday visa schemes is proof of your government’s lack of interest in them – not of other countries saying ‘fuck you’ to American tourists.

      Most visas are not free and this applies to everyone not just US citizens (although of course US citizens get to travel visa-free more than almost everyone else). I’ve looked it up online and I can’t find any proof that countries like Vietnam or Laos have special, higher visa fees just for US citizens. It costs at least $160 to apply for a US tourist visa and visa refusal rates are around 10%-20% even for rich white countries so paying the fee is in no way a guarantee that you’ll actually get a visa.

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    Yeah. Things have gotten better and worse with increased security. As a kid, traveling made me anxious because I’d (usually “jokingly”) get harassed/profiled because they thought I was a boy and my name at least was decidedly a female name (I still remember flying (when you didn’t need an ID) when I was like 10 and the guy taking my ticket was like “is this really your name?” in a “why on earth would your parents do this to you, son” manner and yeah that was fun to explain. Of course, I also remember a few equally embarrassing but more frightening occasions when I had to assure security that no, the name and sex were correct and yes, these are my parents and no, I’m not getting kidnapped).

    Currently, travel makes me anxious because the way I get gendered goes 50-50. On one hand, people respect the ID a lot more (especially since I recently got a new one so the photo looks like me) and I get fewer super skeptical looks that make me feel like I need to defensively explain that my ID is real. On the other hand, whenever TSA people think I’m a dude, my super suspicious chest area provokes attention (THANKS full body scanners) and a good portion of the time some dude starts a patdown and immediately stops once he gropes me. So, yeah, not a fan of that groping, TSA. I’ve yet to be completely pulled aside for some extra questioning, but honestly, that feels more like luck than anything else.

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    I guess I’ve been really lucky. I’m 2 years post-op. The only weird thing that’s happened to me, happened coming home from vacation in Bangkok. I was flying from Bkk to CDG.
    I had my dilators in my carry on luggage. I guess something set off security and they went fishing through my backpack next to an unsuspecting Aussie.
    They found my dilator bag, pulled out my dilators to my embarrassment and then promptly put them away and sent me off to my flight. Fortunately to the untrained eye they just look like dildos so I guess, whatever. No one probably knew any better. Still, it was kinda embarrassing.

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      I had something similar passing through TSA in Toronto (it’s odd – you go through US Customs and TSA there…) They checked my dilators then asked me what they were. I’m still proud of making that strapping young man blush with my answer of, “they are medical devices; vaginal dilators.”

  11. Thumb up 3

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    Thank you, Mari, for this thorough article! Thank you also to commenters for sharing their experiences, too. I don’t personally experience these struggles, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn.

    I know ya’ll know this, but I think its worth acknowledging eleventy-MILLION times that it takes energy and strength and time and guts not only to push through all the awfulness of systemic oppression, but to choose to share and reflect on that experience in a way that supports others, too.

  12. Thumb up 8

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    Heyo.

    I think the biggest thing is that for trans people, how people judge you, often based on your appearance, can be ridiculously and oppressively limiting.

    But it is also worth noting that many trans people *do* travel the world fairly freely. Within the last three months, I have traveled through Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. I was also in South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). I’ve been to both Jakarta and New Delhi. I hope to return to both India and Indonesia. I hope you get to see them both one day.

    Hang in there. The situation got much better for most US-based trans people when the department of state liberalized the guidelines for updating a passport.

    I remember the first time I traveled to India, not quite ready to present as female all the time, still presenting as male, but definitely started with transition and wearing a bra. I arrived in Amsterdam to find my flight to Delhi cancelled. I was routed through Dubai with no onward ticket and told I’d get one when I got there. So there I am, in the midst of DXB on an unscheduled layover, somewhat concerned. No problems with security or anything that trip. A few hours after I was in a taxi speeding through the streets of Delhi a few hours before dawn.

    A few months later after having switched presentations at work and done so everywhere, I traveled again to a few other countries on my new passport. It was new, I didn’t pass that much, but it didn’t cause me any problems and so I stopped worrying too much about it. Been traveling without too much worry ever sense. (I still don’t book shared rooms in women-only dorms in conservative areas though. It would probably be fine, but I would end up feeling really shitty if someone got uncomfortable and made a big deal about it. So I tend to make slightly different plans than maybe I would otherwise.)

    Everyone’s experience differs, I am probably lucky in that I rarely get misgendered these days. And it’s absurd how much that matters in this world and it’s definitely contributed to not having a ton of problems while traveling. (Other than the usual problems women have, which definitely are also notable. I’ve been hit on in unwelcome ways in more countries than I’d like.)

    But anyone thinking about transition?

    The picture the article paints (although important to know and critical to fight for progress around) isn’t necessarily the reality that everyone experiences. Please don’t worry that if you transition you’ll never be able to travel again. It will be a factor, you will have to think about it, you will have to deal with the reality of being trans and traveling and that can play a role in your experience. Many trans people travel.

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    I was a little anxious, I’ll admit – I was travelling from Toronto to England to get my surgery… and my ID still hadn’t been change to female yet. I had only transitioned four years previously, and through the process took my employer to human rights – and won. That was almost 20 years ago. There were no precedents when I fighting for my job, but within a year, gender identity was something included in the grounds someone couldn’t be discriminated for. I was able to get a few wonderful people to help me get from point A to point B. But generally even the gay community just doesn’t know what to do with us, and quite often keeps a distance. Some day people might just learn to be able to accept others for the simple fact they’re just being themselves.

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    Thanks for writing the article. I recently wrote a post about my experiences traveling while trans* and being perceived as a threat to homeland security.
    The link is here:
    http://aboyandherdog.com/2014/07/09/flying-while-butch-genderqueer-or-transgende/

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    Re: “entirely too intimate”

    I couldn’t agree more. I recently flew back home to Houston from Croatia, and for some reason (perhaps it was the many metal bobby pins holding up my bun? I know that there was some kind of special security advisory in Zagreb, though…) I was flagged for pat-down at both the Zagreb and Frankfurt airports. The first one was way more in-depth than anything that I’ve ever experienced: hands sliding up under my bra, extended inner-thigh, crotch, and butt checking, etc. What’s more, I’m very clearly cis. I totally feel for the trans people who passed through that airport that day.

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