Ivan Coyote on ‘Flying While Butch’: Don’t Let “State-Enforced Gender Conformity” Control You

We talked a little bit about the new TSA screening procedures a few weeks ago but haven’t really gotten into it since — it’s sort of been hanging out over there with Wikileaks as something we should maybe be covering just because it seems to matter deeply but we are not really sure how to.

But in The Vancouver Xtra! on Thursday, Ivan Coyote’s “Flying While Butch” gets into the debate in a way that I really liked a lot so LET’S TALK ABOUT IT.

In the summer of 2009, when the US Transportation Security Administration enacted new requirements for its passenger identification system, Coyote was concerned about its focus on the passport holder’s current appearance matching every element of the passport — including gender. Her fears were well founded:

Since then I have had my gender questioned or at least eyebrowed at least five times by mostly airline personnel while checking in, and one strip search (which Homeland Security assured me was random).

When the TSA’s new requirements were announced last month, Coyote says, “it got so much worse.”

Coyote goes on to lay out a pretty much perfect/completely persuasive argument against the new TSA Screening Procedures because of how it makes traveling specifically uncomfortable for ambiguously gendered peoples or anyone who presents outside of the strict gender binary.

But despite her opposition, she’s not going to stop traveling to ALL OF THE PLACES (probably to lead a pack of wild wolves through the Montana wilderness or ride around on some kind of super-sled that climbs mountains all along the California coast or read some poetry at the Seattle Womyn’s Center or just stand around in her leather jacket looking badass):

If I wasn’t such a stubborn road dog with an almost belligerent love of going where I want no matter what, in love with more than 100 foreign cities, I would simply swear off air travel right now. But I refuse. I will not allow them to control me. Especially not by the use of fear and state-enforced gender conformity.

Then she gives you tips on how to deal. Not on how to fight properly with your parents about it, but how to work with the system because really now, why not make your life easier? I mean, life is so fucking hard, even when it’s easy:

I am just going to offer up a few strategies, and encourage anyone who has other tricks to add to this list to share them, so we can all help each other travel safely and with as little trauma and inconvenience as possible.

Read her tips and the rest of the piece at the Vancouver Xtra.

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Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

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  1. “I made the mistake of wearing a small, soft packer in my underwear last week. This has never been a problem before now. But I was full-body scanned and it showed up, apparently in a viewing room somewhere nearby. Then I was subjected to a genital pat-down. I managed to convince her that it was the wad of $20s I had from selling books in my front left pocket (I dress left), and she radioed back that the “object had been identified” and let me go, but my hands did not stop shaking for a couple of hours.”

    How does this happen, how is this possible, how does this situation possibly exist? Absolutely sickening and the worst part is since this seems like an internal matter there’s just, there’s nothing to be done unless people can afford to sue. I’m not even in the right continent to do anything about it. But the whole concept disgusts me. How *dare* they.

  2. There needs to be a massive fucking class action lawsuit. For me, it’s one thing to make this choice for myself, but to subject my 13-year-old kid to this kind of thing? EFF THAT NOISE.

  3. Ivan encapsulated many of my flying experiences since 9/11.

    The anxiety I associate with flying and airports can be really paralyzing. Over the years I have figured out which airports are going to be worse on the gender conformity restrictions (Washington Dulles TSA agents need to read some Kate Bornstein; SFO agents may very likely be genderqueer themselves…or at least used to the disconnect between gov’t ID and appearance; Denver is okay, particularly if gender ambiguously decked out in REI gear, while Salt Lake can be judgey).

    Just don’t get me started on airport bathrooms. The American melting pot that manifests itself in airport restrooms isn’t the best reflection of our country’s diversity.

    What is sad and emotionally draining is how I will change little aspects of myself–just as Ivan suggests–to save myself from the humiliation and inconvenience of traveling while butch. So, my generously endowed chest may be on fuller display while traveling (“Look, I’m a girl! Really!”). I suppose I am privileged in a sense — I can float through the world as a girl pretty easily without too much alteration. I raise eyebrows and second glances more than I raise a special screening procedure. But the little alterations add up to bigger traumas after time, which is why this issue must be addressed in some way by our national LGBT organizations. It shouldn’t be that hard to get some gender identity and expression sensitivity training for TSA agents on the agenda of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (come out already, girl!).

    As for accoutrements, they usually get packed away in my wife’s suitcase…because, hey, she enjoys them and she’s really good at righteous indignation when challenged by ignorant and pervish TSA agents. “Why, yes, TSA agent, that IS indeed MY very large, phallic-looking object. Jealous?”

    • Hm, I don’t know about you [your knowledge, your experience] but I once read a piece in which Ivan stated that she (yes!) liked being called “she” in front of a class, finally. I think both male and female pronouns fit her, and I wouldn’t necessarily think she’d be offended by being called “she”?
      Just from what I’ve read that Ivan has written herself, that is.

  4. I’ve been really concerned since I heard about the new American restrictions about this very issue, gender presentation not necessarily matching passport or photo ID gender.

    In an ideal world they would train the TSA agents on how to handle trans or butch or effeminate people who may not meet stereotypes of what “masculine” or “feminine” are. I can dream.

    By the way, way to go for linking Xtra guys! I love seeing local hero Ivan E. Coyote and my hometown gay paper on the site. Canada has three editions of Xtra, in Vancouver (Xtra West) and Toronto and Ottawa (Capital Xtra). Montreal has its own glossy gay magazine, Fugues, which is mostly in French.

    One of the reasons I love Vancouver is that there’s practically an Xtra box on every corner in the city in the central neighbourhoods, not just the gaybourhoods. It’s just one of the ways that gay is pretty seamlessly integrated into the geography and streetscape of Vancouver.

  5. Great story from a friend of the family:
    A few years ago, before the US State Dept changed the passport rules and you could get your sex changed on your passport without bottom surgery, my friend Andy (FTM) traveled to Honduras with his family on a church trip (yes, there are churches that are totally cool with queer and genderqueer folks!) Anyhow, there was TONS of nervousness beforehand, because his passport still said F, even though he looked and acted totally M, and his driver’s license said M now. He gets to the first passport officer, who looks at his passport, looks at him, and says “This says female.” Andy looks right at the guy, raises an eyebrow, and says “I know, right?” And he got through – no problem.

    However, I’ve not heard from Andy about travel with the new rules in place. I mean, is the new x-ray thing strong enough to show if you don’t have original plumbing?

    • “I mean, is the new x-ray thing strong enough to show if you don’t have original plumbing?”

      The x-rays definitely show outlines of the genital area. Foreign objects will show up, so ‘packing’ during a flight would not be advisable (as Ivan admits in her advice).

      Manchester Airport (in England) addresses the issue of transgendered people in their FAQs:
      “I am transgendered:
      As the person viewing the images cannot see who is being screened the passengers modesty and privacy is not breached.”

      This seems a totally shit response (everyone’s privacy is breached by being scanned) but I guess they fact they address the question means security staff have been briefed about being sensitive to transgendered individuals.

  6. my US tourist visa is expiring next year, and things like this are making me re-think my plan of possibly visiting the US before my tourist visa expires.

  7. You know, this brings up the question of why we even fucking need to have our gender on our identifying documents. The scrutiny given to whether or not I am the person my document says I am goes so far beyond that in the amount of information required. Verifying that I am the sex that the paper claims I am only eliminates roughly half the populations of the entire goddamn world as possible imposters. You get my name, you get my face, my birthdate, in some cases my fingerprint, and a number that’s officially been assigned to me and only me. As specific as my documentation gets in confirming this, my gender is hardly anymore informative than whether or not I plan on eating a bag of the in-flight peanuts.

  8. The fact that something like a “genital search” exists just makes me want to put a pocket knife in my diva cup and stash it.

  9. i too get searched every time. The only time I haven’t is when TSA was busy randomly selecting a black man.

  10. I’m a really butch woman and I spend a lot of time in places that are not gay-friendly/gender variant-friendly. I’m saying that to point out that what I say below was learned through experience and trial and error, and not from some second-hand source.

    Let me add one tip to Ivan’s list. Be confident. You have a right to be you. Live that. If you’re a novice at this, work from the “Fake it till you make it” angle. If you aren’t confident, pretend. Imagine some person who makes you feel confident is there, or imagine you are in some situation where you are confident. I know this sounds hokey, but it has gotten me through some potentially violent situations. Act like you aren’t afraid, and through your actions, broadcast that you are willing to go to the mat for yourself and your life. It’s hard to believe this helps, but it really does. I have found this and humor to be the most helpful things.

  11. Once, when my gf was going through security the TSA guy unzipped a pocket of her carry-on that held a bunch of tampons. He said “Get a lot of nosebleeds huh?” and she just said “no.”
    I told her she should have said “They’re for my VAGINA, you know when I get my PERIOD?”

  12. It always amazes me that TSA has this rule considering how many womyn they have working for them that are gender questionable…. I usually try to hit those screening lines… Being a butch disabled veteran I tend to receive extra screening anyways… If it isn’t my metal implants it’s the confused reaction from some guy needing to flex his manhood and power to inconvenience my day… Guess this was what I was fighting for all that time in the middle east.

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