In just a generation, the LGBTQ movement has gone from the Stonewall riots to entrenched legal safeties in areas like employment, housing, schools, and, perhaps most notably, marriage equality. And yet, though our society has grown more understanding of sexual identity, the trans community remains largely misunderstood, under-represented, and under constant legal and violent threats to their self expression.
Travel is one of many things cisgendered people can take for granted, while trans people continue facing added obstacles. I interviewed Ajay Strong, a DJ, producer, and event planner who has spent the past two decades traveling throughout the country with his work. Ajay shared with me his experiences traveling as a trans man in our interview below:
Describe a little bit about yourself.
My name is Ajay Strong, I am a 36 year old trans man, born and raised in Minnesota and living in New Orleans. I produce burlesque shows for a living. My partner Bella Blue is my boss and co-producer. We work together and employ about 23 local burlesque performers in New Orleans.
Can you tell me about your travel experience or where you’ve lived?
I grew up in Minnesota. I lived in what I consider to be “the country” for most of my childhood, before moving to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans. What has brought me around the country is music. I had a group of friends when I was a teenager who I traveled with to different cities around the midwest to see headlining DJ’s. Once I got a little bit older and had more means to travel, I started traveling further out to the west coast…anywhere I could find a cheap flight or find someone to road trip with me.
I wasn’t identifying as a trans person then. Earlier on, I didn’t even know what that was. I was identifying as a lesbian because I was a female bodied person who was attracted to women. Although that never really sat well with me, it just was what it was at the time. Traveling while trans has only been my experience in the last couple of years, and it’s very strange.
What differences do you notice going from a masculine presenting lesbian to someone that identifies as trans, as far as your travel goes?
Quite honestly, biological men are much nicer to me now when they perceive me as male as opposed to when they perceive me as female and a butch looking lesbian. But the fear in traveling is much more internal, it’s much more internalized.
My fear in traveling now has to do a lot with being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes my fear is centered around authorities: if I’m pulled over in the middle of Texas and this cop decides he’s gonna mess with me, he’s gonna figure out that something is up with me. Those kinds of scenarios are very real for me. It’s something I think about frequently.
It’s sad because I love to be outside, exploring these nooks and crannies where people don’t usually go. Unfortunately, those are in areas that are generally more conservative, outside of the city. When I’m inside of the city, I feel safer where there are more people, there’s more diversity, there’s more open-mindedness in general.
Is there a difference in feeling safe or accepted whether you’re traveling with women versus men?
Yes, definitely. I always feel safer traveling with women. A group of women who know each other, are close, they all watch out for each other, they’re all taking care of each other. I feel safe inside of that.
I don’t feel that way in a group of men. I don’t have a lot of close guy friends, a small handful. If I’m traveling around with a bunch of men, maybe a couple of them know I’m a trans guy and the rest don’t know and that’s terrifying because I don’t know how they’re going to react when they find out.
My experience has been that if I’m traveling with women that I don’t know, and they find out that I’m a trans man, they’re fine with it, or they’re totally interested in it, and they want to understand. I’ve never felt scared to come out to a woman ever. I have felt scared to come out to men.
What surprises, good or bad, have you had while traveling as a trans person?
The biggest positive is when I’m treated like an equal by men that I encounter. Growing up as a female, you have a very specific experience. I can tell you that as a female you won’t ever see the other side unless you somehow are perceived to be a member of the other side, and when you are, you are treated differently. Entirely.
If you’re passing and people are perceiving you the way you want to be perceived, then you’re already on cloud nine. Not only are you living your authentic self but you are also traveling and experiencing the world as this person.
What is a common thing that other people don’t expect or think about when traveling as a trans person?
It’s always the restroom thing; it’s so simple but it’s a necessity. Even before transition, just being an androgynous individual going into the women’s room was always a source of my anxiety. Now as a trans person, going into the men’s room is just what I do. At first it was really nerve wracking because you feel like you’re going to get in trouble for some reason.
Another thing that people don’t think about is that if you’re a trans man that looks like a man but you still have breasts, you don’t wanna go swimming. Or you get in and you’re the only weirdo with all of your clothes on in the pool. In terms of vacationing, going to the beach being a trans guy–unless you’ve had top surgery and you’re all healed up and feel confident–is a source of anxiety.
How is travel-prep different as a trans person going on a flight?
The first thing I do is grab my folder that has all of my documentation: my order for a name change, both of my social security cards with my old name and my current name, my birth certificate, my therapist’s letter saying I’ve been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, the physician’s letter saying that my transition is complete. I bring all of that documentation in case I get into a position where I have to prove my identity, because it’s scary. I also take weekly testosterone shots which come in a little vial and I have a bunch of syringes and needles, so going through security with that is also nerve wracking.
Going through the x-ray, I am always wondering if something is gonna show up and it will look like I’m smuggling something in my pants because I’m wearing a packer. If it’s giving me too much anxiety, I won’t pack going through security. But then it’s in my bag and I’m like, “Oh God, they’re gonna see my dick in the x-ray machine!” They’re gonna pull it out and touch it and be like, “Explain this to us.”
Are there trans friendly places you recommend for travel?
San Francisco still continues to be one of the LGBTQ meccas, so I would definitely suggest going there. I would tell anybody regardless of their gender to come to New Orleans. There is no type of person that could come here and feel out of place because it’s all out of place. It’s 350 square miles of weird in the Bible Belt; it’s pretty spectacular. Coming from a place where my travel really started because of music, music is woven into the fabric of this place. I’ve never been to a place where you can walk down the street and hear live music pouring out the door of every establishment.
Any last things you’d like to say?
I think everybody is on a journey to find who they really are, and the closer you get to that, the happier you become, and that’s where I’m at. There’s a lot of good in finding your true self, regardless of whether you are a trans person or not.