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Travelling as a Trans Person Is Exhausting and Dangerous

For trans people, airport confrontations are more than embarrassing, they can also be incredibly physically threatening.

Fury

Illustration by Hiro


As a trans person, I watched my own anxieties around travel play out on Twitter when #travellingwhiletrans started trending. It started with Shadi Petosky tweeting about her treatment by the Transport Security Administration (TSA) while going through security procedures at Orlando airport. She entered the body scanner identifying as female, but the machine flagged "an anomaly" – her penis. What could have been resolved by politely and apologetically asking if she was trans turned into an absolute fiasco.

Shadi was forced to wait as they repeatedly referred to her penis as "an anomaly" and tried to decide if a male or female TSA agent should conduct the pat down on her groin area. She understandably didn't want a female TSA agent touching her groin, but didn't want a male TSA agent touching anywhere else. She was told if she didn't consent to a second full body scan the police would be called. Faced with coercion, the threat of police, and being publicly and repeatedly misgendered, she eventually agreed, weeping through the whole pat down.

Shadi's encounter was hardly a one-off. Scrolling through #travellingwhiletrans highlights many similar experiences of trans men and women being ushered into shut away rooms and told they needed to "clear" the "anomaly".

Months after Shadi's experience started this conversation, I found myself standing in line at an airport ticket desk waiting to be called forward. "Shit", I thought, "My voice is so low now. If I talk, I'm going to out myself as trans immediately." My internal cogs started whirring, trying to work out how I was going to make my voice more effeminate so that I didn't flag as "different".

Before I could speak, the woman at the counter handed my passport back and directed me on. I was relieved but it was a personal wake up call. Medical transitioning changes everything – you can never truly explain how much impact it has on aspects of your life. Especially when you're like me, and have created such a lifestyle-bubble you forget what the outside world can be like.

For trans people, airport confrontations are more than embarrassing, they can also be incredibly physically threatening.

Lauren Smith, the producer of the Sex, Lies, and Anarchy podcast, recounted her own experience to The Daily Dot: "I eventually dropped my pants and my panties to the ground, because they asked me to, and four women and one man who were much less than an arm's reach from me inspected my genitals. My reason for crying was not that I was exposing something private, but was because I knew the ultimate consequence of my resistance can be death. If I tried to resist and continued to do so, they could imprison or shoot me. I cried because I kept trying to not resist, but they kept telling me I was. It was very startling. I was threatened with arrest verbally several times."

Her fear of violence at the hands of these officers isn't overstated. A 2014 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found transgender people were six times more likely to face police violence than cisgender people. The reality is for us, confrontations like this carry the looming possibility of physical assault.

But for trans individuals, the problems don't stop at the airport. The Matador Network advises trans people research the places they visit as countries that may be safe for cisgender tourists can be very different for us. Holiday spots like Belize and Oman openly suppress trans publications and writing, and have rejected reforms on laws used to discriminate against LGBT people. In Europe 24 countries still require trans citizens to be sterilised before being legally recognised.

Even if you don't feel physically threatened, other countries can still be confronting. Nevo is a Jewish non-binary trans person based in Melbourne. When he identified more firmly as being a trans man, he travelled to Israel with his movement Habonim Dror. The group does a lot of work around bringing Jewish people and Palestinians together. He struggled with the culture shock. "I think Israelis are a more abrupt, upfront people... so I felt like it was a lot more in my face. People would ask me questions to my face like 'are you a boy or a girl?', I could hear people talking about me a lot more. It's just a lot more obvious."

But jarring attitudes didn't rival the difficulty with speaking another language. "In Hebrew you can't address someone without using a gender," explained Nevo. "Even the word you is gendered. There's a female, male, and plural versions. There's literally no way to avoid it".

Nevo did find an unexpected upside though—by using the preferred gender for your words, you can correct people more easily than stopping the conversation and pulling them up."It was this weird phenomenon of super triggering but also empowering. I was getting triggered but was able to correct them without being confrontational."

His experiences of Judaism in Israel were more fraught. While being trans and Jewish wasn't particularly complicated for him in Melbourne, in Israel he felt like he was going into people's spaces and holy lands and withholding information. He worried that although he was a man, not telling people he was trans was deceptive and meant different things in a culture that wasn't his own.

Although again, there were upsides: "When I got an ultra-orthodox man to shake my hand outside the male section of the western wall – which is arguably the most holy place to the Jewish people – to me that was the most gender affirming moment I've ever had."

Waiting for my flight in the airport, I flipped open my passport and examined the picture next to that F that identified me as female. I thought about revising this picture the next time I wanted to leave the country, but was immediately exhausted by the thought of all the paperwork I would need to do to make these processes easier. To travel through an Australian airport without a second thought would involve a name change, my birth certificate corrected, and having my whole passport reissued. These processes never end. There is always another form to fill out, always another person to come out to. I remember a comment Nevo made, "I think being trans everywhere is hard and I don't think that changes when you travel, it's just emphasised."

I think he is right.

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