As a nonbinary world traveler, each time I head through US airport security, I brace myself. How many times will I get misgendered? Will they send me back through the body scanner because they guessed my gender wrong?
These fears are mild, though, compared to what a lot of trans and gender-nonconforming people face while traveling. In fact, problems with harassment, issues with documentation, and concerns about hostile environments are often enough to keep trans and gender-nonconforming folks from hitting the road altogether.
However, don’t hang up your backpack just yet. With some extra research, preparation, and patience, traveling while trans is both possible and rewarding.
1. Know where to go.
More and more information is available on LGBTQ travel, though much of it focuses on lesbian and gay folks. Before making your travel plans, do some research. When deciding where to go, check out laws regarding gender identity and sexual orientation in the countries you’re interested in. (Equaldex also maps LGBTQ-related laws and includes state-level data for the United States.)
In addition, review the US State Department website for travel warnings and advice. Look up the countries you’re interested in, and find information specific to LGBTQ travelers under “Special Laws and Circumstances.”
While this doesn’t have to dictate where you go, you can at least know your rights and get an idea of what things might be like on the ground.
2. Look for LGBTQ-friendly travel providers.
While there aren’t a lot of trans-specific travel companies, those that cater to the lesbian and gay community are more likely to be trans-friendly, too. For travel in Europe and the US, the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, Expedia, and Purple Roofs can help you find LGBTQ-friendly accommodations and resources. For travel in Asia, Utopia Asia can be a good place to look for LGBTQ-friendly tour groups, guides, and activities.
In addition, do some digging in your city or country of choice. Local LGBTQ organizations often develop travel guides that might help you figure out where to stay and what to do.
3. Update your documents.
One of the biggest hurdles for trans and gender-nonconforming travelers is documentation. Not all states and countries allow trans people to change the gender marker on their passport, and for non-binary people, very few places offer a non-binary option at all.
If it’s possible, update your passport to reflect the name you use and your gender identity. If you can’t do this, try to make sure your passport and travel visa photos reflect your current appearance to avoid extra hassles.
If you’re traveling in the US and are worried about your documents not reflecting your identity, consider using this card as a discreet way to share with the TSA agent that you’re transgender.
4. Pack wisely.
Know how to appropriately pack needles, hormones, medicines, and other items, and be sure to review such information in each country you’ll be flying into and out of as rules can differ.
Think carefully about what you wear and/or pack in your carry-on. Items like packers and other prosthetics, while typically allowed, might be cause for extra screening. In the US, if you don’t want to deal with the body scanners, you can ask for a pat down (though many trans people have given me mixed reports on this). Or if it’s in your budget, consider applying for TSA Pre-Check, which typically only requires you to go through a metal detector.
5. Make a game plan to respond to misgendering.
On the bright side, in countries where the gender binary is relatively rigid, if your gender expression fits what people expect of men or women, you might be correctly gendered more than you’d think. For example, I bind my chest, wear men’s clothes, and have short hair, and when I traveled to East Asia, a lot of people thought I was a man.
Unfortunately, though, especially for those of us who are gender-nonconforming, misgendering might happen a lot. So make a plan for how you’ll respond.
For example, when I was traveling in India, major tourist sites used gender-segregated security checks, and in Thailand, speaking the language inherently requires the use of male and female gender markers. For those that are gender-nonconforming, do some research about what to expect, and decide in advance how you’ll respond to these binary gender options.
Regardless of where you are on the trans spectrum, think through what you can do to mitigate some of these issues. In hostels, reserve a single room with a private bathroom for more privacy, or if you’re uncomfortable in a single-gender space, get a bed in a mixed dormitory. You might also consider staying at international hotels that have nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity and expression.
6. Make friends.
Trans and queer people are everywhere, whether they’re out or not. Even in countries that criminalize homosexuality, you can still find active LGBTQ (and queer-friendly) clubs, bars, bookstores, and events. See if you can catch a Pride festival while you travel, or plan your trip around a queer or trans film festival, group tour, or conference. Dig around for queer bars and clubs online or in guidebooks, find out what’s happening in the local Time Out magazine, or consider finding new friends on Meetup.
A lot of these things you’ll have to look up for each city or country, but some you might be able to find through international programs and listings (like Utopia Asia).
7. Be prepared to be flexible — and to educate others.
Some people at home and abroad conflate gender and sexuality, and gender norms can vary greatly from country to country. Be aware that not everyone will conceptualize these ideas in the same way you do, and try to be flexible when confronted with these differences. If you’re in a social situation where it’s safe to talk about these issues, consider using it as an opportunity for cultural exchange — educating your new buddies on your own experiences while learning about their perspectives. Try to keep an open mind — but don’t put yourself in a space where you’re unsafe (mentally, emotionally, or physically).
8. Enjoy the journey.
Bring your camera, write in a journal, and enjoy taking in the world around you. Despite all the fears and the possible problems, by doing your research, being prepared, and keeping an open mind, you can plan a journey that will be fulfilling, freeing, and fun.
- Know Your Rights
- Lambda Legal: Know Your Rights (US)
- National Center for Transgender Equality: Know Your Rights: Airport Security (US)
- TSA Recommendations for Trans Passengers (US)
- Egale Canada Human Rights Trust: Travelling Trans (Canada and International)