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Traveling while transgender
Insight for travelers who are transgender.
Mark Twain once famously said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
By public acclaim, the evidence for this appears to be true, or at least it is so for those who have the wealth, privilege and social position to travel.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice” – Mark Twain
But what about those who are outside of the social mainstream, especially those whose gender identity might not match their original birth certificate designation or even the physical features of their face and/or body? For them, the enlightenment and joy of travel presents a host of difficult obstacles that most gender normative people have never considered.
As an American transgender woman myself who has traveled, both before and after transitioning, I’d like to share some of the experiences we face so that you, as a potential ally to our community, may both better understand and help to make our voyages as enjoyable as yours.
Transgender traveler concerns
Public travel today is a far more complicated experience than it was in the past. The needs for heightened security on public transportation, especially in the air and at sea, has led to very strict, invasive security measures that are an unpleasant annoyance for most folks, but can be profoundly humiliating to the trans community. We face such issues as:
1. TSA Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) body scans that reveal our bodies in which many of us have so much shame
2. Aggressive, invasive and intimate TSA pat-down searches
3. Going through TSA checks with body prosthetics
4. Traveling with prescription HRT (especially injection supplies)
5. Traveling before our ID has been updated for name and gender
6. Getting misgendered (sometimes intentionally) by airline and hotel staff or TSA officers
7. Being forced to sit next to someone who is overtly transphobic
8. Public humiliation or overt outing by TSA officers, travel services staff or hotel front desk staff
9. International (or domestic) travel to destinations where transgender people are not socially or legally accepted in their identified gender, especially when the travel is required for work
It doesn’t begin and end at the airport, either. Even taking road trips by car can be a source of deep worry over issues such as:
1. Traveling to/through a place that is hostile to trans people (by legislation or culture, both inside the US and international)
2. Having to visit public rest stops, stores, restaurants, and gas stations in unfriendly areas on road trips
3. Facing confrontations for using the public restroom of the gender in which we identify while traveling
4. Visiting potentially unwelcoming rural areas vs. the anonymity of large urban areas
5. Going to public swimming pools, saunas or into public changing rooms
6. Being confronted with verbal abuse and, all too often, unthinkable physical violence by intolerant, local people
7. Traveling for a variety of transgender surgeries where, on the return trip, we will appear/be different than when we departed
The trans community, all these issues and more are significant obstacles to be prepared for, dealt with, and overcome, one at a time, over and over. You simply cannot know how much mental and emotional energy it takes for trans people to get ourselves ready to leave our safe space and venture out into the unknown. It can be excruciatingly hard.
How to cope as a trans traveler
But trans people need not abandon the personally enriching experiences of travel in their lives. While the safe world is quite a bit smaller for us, there are still places we can go and things we can do to both protect ourselves and our civil rights as traveling citizens.
1. Know your rights!
2. Remain positive, gracious and respectful
Be so at all times in your interactions with others. Never shout or threaten a TSA officer. Jokes are discouraged as well.
3. Working with a TSA Behavioral Detection Officer
If you are approached by a TSA Behavioral Detection Officer, calmly answer all reasonable questions directly. Ask for a supervisor if the questions become unreasonable.
4. Consider self-identifying to TSA as trans
You may wish to privately self-identify as trans to a TSA officer before going through an imaging body scan(they have separate, binary-gender image screening settings and “unexpected anomalies” may raise a red flag, resulting in a more thorough, body pat-down)
5. Opt out of body scanning
You can opt out of the imaging body scan and ask instead for a pat-down search.
6. Carry a TSA Notification Card
Consider carrying a TSA Notification Card if you carry prescribed, injection medications or wear a prosthesis.
7. Bag up all prescription meds & supplies
If you are packing prescription medications, including hypodermic needles and hormones, inside your carry-on bag, TSA regulations require you put them all together in a separate bag, preferably in their original packaging.
8. Ask for a private pat-down
If you are selected for a pat-down search, you can ask for it to be done in a private screening area with a witness or companion of your choosing.
9. Ask for same-gender officer for pat-down
You can ask for a TSA officer of the same gender as your gender identity to perform the pat-down search.
10. Let TSA know if you are wearing prosthetics
You may wish to self-identify if you are wearing prosthetics prior to a screening or pat-down. If you are asked to either show a prosthetic or a body part, or lift, raise or remove any clothing, ask for a supervisor.
11. Politely correct accidental misgenderings
Politely correct a person who initially misgenders you by mistake.
12. Ask for a TSA Supervisor
If need be, ask to speak to a TSA supervisor at any time.
13. Gender presentation not relevant to ability to travel
How you present, gender-wise, is not relevant to your ability to travel. The only thing that is relevant is matching your ID documents’ name and (in the US, binary) gender marker to your reservations. TSA cannot reject you for your gender presentation.
14. Update your ID photo
If necessary, update your government photo ID with a current photo if you haven’t had a legal name change.
15. Update your legal IDs if you have legally changed your name
If you have legally changed your name and/or gender designation, update your driver’s license, passport, and TSA PreCheck card with new personal identity data.
16. Make travel reservations using your legal name
Make your flight reservations in the name and the binary gender ID based on the legal ID documents you will bring to the airport. They must match, as required per law.
17. Consider carrying medical letter for HRT & gender
You may opt to carry a copy of your medical letter for prescription hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and gender designation.
18. Consider carrying name change court document
You may also consider carrying a copy of your name change court order document. You might also carry your old ID just in case.
19. Ask for a private luggage check screening
If your carry-on baggage is selected to be opened, you may ask for a private screening.
20. Consider bringing a medical letter for medical supplies
If you are bringing dilators or syringes in a carry-on, it may be helpful to bring a letter of medical necessity.
21. How to file a complaint for mistreatment
22. Stay at known LGBTQ-friendly hotels
Stay at hotels and resorts that are explicitly LGBTQ friendly. Expedia Group has a large number of them in our lodging inventory, and that list is growing.
23. Travel to known safe destinations for LGBTQ people
For additional details, check out Know Your Rights: Airport Security by the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Advice for service workers who interact with trans travelers
So much of the above puts the onus on trans people to be compliant with and aware of the regulatory rules and laws as well as standing up for our rights against discrimination. However, for transgender allies and just kind-hearted people who work in government jobs in TSA, Customs, and law enforcement, as well as workers in the travel and hospitality industries, there are things you can do as well to help make our travel be so much easier. This includes:
- Be discreet about bringing public attention to someone who may be transgender.
- Consider not saying gendered salutations, such as “sir”, “ma’am”, “Mr.”, Ms.”, “gentleman” and “lady”, in your speech, especially if there is any form of perceived ambiguity in the person’s gender expression.
- Discreetly ask the traveler how they want to be identified (including their personal pronouns, name, salutations, etc.).
- Never ask a transgender person deeply personal questions about surgery, genitalia, medications, their “real” name, or anything else not relevant to their travel.
- For TSA: Proactively provide options to the traveler on who can do a pat-down search if one is needed.
- Treat transgender people with the same respect and dignity as you would any other person.
Ultimately, transgender travelers are just travelers. We travel because we have to be somewhere else and have to use public transportation facilities and services to get there. Along the way, we may have to visit the bathroom. This is no different than anyone else. If you show us the same respect and dignity that you expect from us, everything will be so much easier for everyone involved.
Travel can be such a positive, even life-changing, experience. In a perfect world, transgender travelers, like everyone else, would share another one of Mark Twain’s musings resulting from the amazing experience of travel: “There is no unhappiness like the misery of sighting land (and work) again after a cheerful, careless voyage.”
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