I want to go on vacation with my best friend. Sounds simple enough, right? We both love to travel, our school holidays line up perfectly… So, why aren’t we already on a tropical beach with Piña Coladas? Because there’s just one problem with all those plans: Amy is transgender. And because of that, she—and countless other trans people— will face difficulties in travel that make holiday plans sound a lot less exciting.
One of those things is travel prep, which—for most people—involves little more than booking your flight and packing up. But what if your dream destination was more likely to offer physical assault than a nice tan?
For transgender people, this is often the case with many international destinations. And while homosexuality is legal in most countries, there are still nearly 80 countries where it is illegal to be gay. Further, if that type of discrimination is actively directed toward gay people, it’s a pretty safe bet that gender performativity is heavily policed in some areas as well. In fact, Sean Williams, a travel intelligence expert, notes that, ‘In some countries, they expect men to have a certain appearance; if you are not dressed for your gender, they can arrest you’. ‘In other countries, homosexuality may be legal but not culturally accepted, so if you end up in the wrong neighborhood, it can get you in trouble.’
Travel journalist Daniel Bonnells also points out that even though no European countries are officially on the list, discrimination is still present and aggressive in countries such as Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Moldova, many of which also have gender sterilisation initiatives in place for people attempting to transition.
Of course, the difficulties don’t end there. Because what else do you need for international travel? Your passport. And in my best friend’s case, this can actually involve applying for a new passport altogether. Because according to the UK Government’s guide to passports, a trans person in the UK must submit one of the following to obtain a passport that reflects their correct gender (which the site annoyingly refers to as your “acquired gender”):
- A birth or adoption certificate in your acquired gender
- A Gender Recognition Certificate
- A letter from your doctor or medical consultant confirming that your change of gender is likely to be permanent, and evidence of your change of name such as a deed poll
And if you’re someone who suffers from anxiety or severe dysphoria, then you—like my best friend—may well be inclined to conclude that the entire process is too unnecessarily stressful and embarrassing to bother with.
But let’s say you forge ahead anyway. You go through all the stress of passport applications and travel planning and make it to the airport only to be hit with one last hurdle. No one likes going through security at airports, but for the most part, it’s an innocuous procedure. For trans people, however, this process can quickly escalate into a threatening ordeal. Just look at the 2015 case of Shadi Petosky, a transgender writer and producer who was flying to Minneapolis on American Airlines when a routine automated body scan flagged an anomaly: her penis.
Faced with this scenario, Shadi did the sensible thing. She politely explained about her transition and acknowledged that this might cause confusion with an automated scanner. That should have been the end of it. But instead of being treated with the dignity she deserved and sent on to her flight, Shadi was detained for forty minutes and treated as a genuine risk to the airport. During these forty minutes, she also recalls being verbally harassed with such comments as one officer’s instruction to, ‘Get back in the machine as a man or this is going to be a problem’.
If you’ve reached the end of this article and feel sick, I don’t blame you (feel free to pause for a minute to gag or write nasty letters to the US Transportation Security Administration). Because cases like Shadi’s are all too common, even in 2018, and will continue to be so without consistent and aggressive efforts at reform. Fortunately, however, there are some things you can do to help and make travel easier in the meantime.
If you’re a trans person, the best thing you can do to protect yourself is be aware. Research your travel destination and identify potential risks you might face. Be aware of possible issues at the airport, whether you’re traveling at home or abroad, and be prepared with documentation supporting your gender. It’s also important that you know your rights. Standing up for yourself when you’re already anxious isn’t easy, but once you’ve complied with body scans and passport checks, be prepared to assert that subjecting you to any additional gender-related searches is discrimination.
And if you’re traveling with a trans friend, the best thing you can do is be supportive. Take note of places and situations that may be uncomfortable for your friend and offer to go with them if they don’t feel comfortable going alone. Ask your friend how you can support them in cases of misgendering or transphobia and be prepared to help. These steps may not solve every type of stress or discrimination you’ll experience in traveling while trans, but being safe and supportive can go a long way to ensure that trans people have a more positive vacation experience.