What it’s like to travel when “M” and “F” don’t cut it

Photo: wickenden

One traveler’s reflections on the occasion of Transgender Awareness Week.

WHEN WE WRITE about the barriers to access or safety concerns associated with travel, we typically cover things like financial limitations, political barriers (like racial profiling or the availability of visas), and the challenge of traveling as a solo woman. A topic that’s almost never discussed is the very concrete administrative and safety issues that trans travelers routinely face.

Airplane travel is a pain in the ass for everyone, especially if your route takes you through the United States. Homeland Security rules and the dangerous brew of near-absolute power and almost no training that is the TSA have made passage through US Customs harrowing for almost anybody. Now imagine the agent doesn’t think you match the sex designation on your passport.

In Canada, my home country, passengers may be denied boarding if there is a discrepancy between their perceived (by airport agents) gender and the gender on their passport. A trans person who has had sex reassignment surgery (SRS) can apply with proof to the government and have their sex changed on their passport. But what about trans folks who don’t want SRS? What about boys who look like girls? What about me?

Look at my picture. You might see a woman; you might see a man. That dissonance doesn’t trouble me, but it tends to trouble border officials. For gender variant and trans people — who may or may not be taking hormones, who may or may not have had, or intend to have, surgery — the border can be a place where an impossible negotiation must be struck, with armed guards.

But every traveler knows getting there is only part of the journey. Last year, on a press trip in Istanbul, our group visited a mosque. The man at the door took our shoes and handed scarves to the women in our group, impatiently waving me inside. The experience was kind of funny — certainly not scary — but it put me in an uncomfortable situation: I could walk in with my head uncovered and risk showing disrespect, or I could call attention to the mistake and embarrass the man at the door. I chose the latter, and had the extremely unusual and profound experience of being “seen” as a woman.

Just like you, my travels are filled with incredible moments (like being asked to dance by the prettiest girl at the bar) and terrible moments (like being forcibly removed from the stall in the women’s bathroom). It should end there, but sometimes it doesn’t. You might get yourself into trouble because you’re drunk, or young, or stupid, or unlucky, but for some trans and gender variant people it’s because we’re us.

The Trans Murder Monitoring Project (TMM) has Google-mapped reported murders of trans people since January 20081. It’s a particularly gruesome overlay to an image that usually ignites wanderlust.

This week (November 12–19, 2012) is Transgender Awareness Week in the United States, a campaign to raise the visibility of trans and gender non-conforming people. Traditionally, the week ends with the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a memorial to honor the people who have died as a result of transphobia. This annual action began in 1998 after trans woman Rita Hester was murdered in Allston, Massachusetts; the event falls on November 20 this year.

As travelers, let’s mark this occasion by remembering that we’re all part of the same tribe, that this world belongs to everyone.

For tools, information, and to get involved, visit the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

1For more on the project’s methods and partners, and to see details on their clickable map, please go directly to the site.

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  • Alice Driver

    writing and traveling the distance between M & F, great article.

  • Jenny Williams

    So important and brave, Keph–thank you.

  • Carlo Alcos

    Thanks for writing this Keph.

  • Stevie Trujillo

    Great article. Muchas gracias!

    • Keph Senett

      So appreciated. Gracias.