The Many Complications Trans People Face While Traveling

I have a dear friend who lives in Canada. I am always looking for opportunities to hang out with him, yet we only ever met  during trips I made to British Columbia. One time I suggested he come to the States for a conference, and  then we could co-present a workshop and hang out. He replied, “I’d love to but travel for me right now is not easy. Traveling while trans sucks.”

International travel can become a very vulnerable experience for someone who is trans or gender non-conforming. Knowing the local laws and customs is important. India Hayes for CNN

This was not the first time I heard this from a trans or gender non-binary person. The difficulties, costs, and legal limitations in changing a gender marker on a government issue ID makes it nearly impossible to cross international borders. Going through security is a pain for lots of people, but for many trans/gender non-binary people, it can be a humiliating and dehumanizing experience.

Even within the borders of the USA, I hear about the obstacles and risks trans people face while traveling. One friend from Florida drove hundreds of miles out of her way to avoid the state of North Carolina during the infamous bathroom ban that demanded people use the public toilet that coincided with the biological sex they were assigned at birth.

Traveling as a Trans Person: It’s Complicated

CNN just published an excellent piece written by Allison Hope, which highlights some of these travel challenges for transgender and gender non-binary people.

Trans people as a group face a higher incidence of harassment, frequent discrimination and even violence without leaving their hometowns, much less venturing far beyond them. Within the trans community, trans women and trans women of color especially, deal with these issues at an even higher rate.
Travel adds an exponential unknown to the equation, which can make everything from going through airport security, hailing a cab, renting an apartment, or engaging in an excursion a potential risk.
Of course having the sort of job that requires travel, or the resources to travel for fun, is, itself, a luxury that many trans people — who experience poverty, homelessness and unemployment at rates that far exceed the general population — simply cannot enjoy. And yet, the challenges for trans travelers can be significant.
Allison also features people telling some of their stories. Regarding the hassles of getting through TSA security, Jules shares,
“I scramble their signals and cause a meltdown,” Jules said, referring to the way scanners and pat-downs are often ill-suited to the bodies and sensitivities of passengers who are not cisgender. (The term “cisgender” refers to people whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth.) One time, at an airport en route from New York City to Rochester, a TSA officer grabbed Jules’ chest without warning, mumbling something about how she thought Jules was male but was wrong.

Jules has come to realize that speaking to the TSA officer while going through security causes them to read Jules as female, which, even though it’s not how they identify, has helped reduce the number of pat-downs and heightened scrutiny.

Jules also adopted a cumbersome ritual pre-security to change clothes — removing a binder, a piece of clothing that flattens the chest, because it has caused confusion with TSA officers about whether to process them as male or female — and then changes back after going through the checkpoint.

Transportation — whether by air or ground — isn’t the only risk trans or gender non-conforming people face. India Hayes for CNN

The article goes on to highlight the frustrations trans travelers face when accessing hotels, AirBnB, taxis, and Ubers. Alison Hope also offers a list of things travelers can do to better protect themselves from some of the most common problems trans and gender non-binary people face.

Injustice + Climate Change = Bigger Travel Woes

As a result of these injustices and inhumane experiences, many trans people avoid travel unless they simply must. During a time of climate change when we are seeing more and more forced evacuations because of extreme weather events, many people find themselves traveling last minute with the added burden of worrying over what might happen to their home and possessions. People living in rental properties in poorer neighborhoods that are more vulnerable to the risks of extreme weather, often lose everything in the storm and have to start from scratch, without insurance money and little to no government assistance that property owners receive.

Traveling with a companion can help transgender people feel more at ease. India Hayes for CNN

If someone has a hard time traveling and crossing borders on a pleasant sunny day, what happens when all hell breaks loose, the waters rise, and we see temporary sudden mass migration? As a threat multiplier, climate change does not only cause larger and stronger storms, we are also added threats affecting rights, mobility, and leading to greater suffering.

What can a Cis Person do?

Being aware of these issues, cisgender people in solidarity with trans and non-binary people can be helpful. If you run an AirBnB property, be explicit about welcoming LGBT people, particularly transgender and non-binary people. Be prepared to welcome guests when they are displaced because of extreme weather (or because of harassment or the many reasons why LGBTQ people need to leave home to find sanctuary.) You can also be willing to travel with friends.
When a big weather events hits, like a hurricane or flood, be curious about what is happening for LGBTQ people. Find out who is providing aid and assistance and support that work through your financial donations. Also, support the work of local trans/non-binary efforts to build community and LGBTQ youth shelters. Multiple studies reveal that when a community is close-knit and cohesive before an extreme weather event, more people survive. Consider donating to the Trans Justice Funding Project, which provides grants for local trans-run groups doing work in their community.

Dig Deeper

Read Allison Hope’s piece for yourself. It is essential reading for people who aspire to be allies to trans/gender non-binary people.
If you are curious to know more about how climate change and extreme weather affect LGBTQ and migrants without legal documentation, check out the piece I wrote for the American Public Health Association, In the Same Boat, Not the Same Deck.

Please feel free to leave a comment about your own travels stories and any tips and advice you have for traveling.


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