I‘m preparing to travel for business. As a trans woman, it’s not just flight delays and lost luggage I’ll be thinking about.
Let’s walk through the process of a hypothetical business trip, from the perspective of a US-based business woman (of trans experience) who needs to fly to a meeting. I’ll be your tour guide today, and I’ll point out some of the ways that being a trans woman can add stress to the process. I ask that you play along with me, by putting yourself in the position of a trans woman for this trip.
We’ll start at the beginning — you’ve been asked to go to London. This is your first stress: you want to know if you’ll be safe there. You’ve never been to London, so you fire up Google and search for “transgender victim London” to see what comes up. You come across a murder, in a hotel near Heathrow. The trans woman was stabbed 40 times.
But, murders happen in the USA too, and often trans victims are misgendered after death, made into someone they are not, so an absence of reports wouldn’t be meaningful anyhow. This is particularly true in more transphobic areas of the world. For the crime near Heathrow, at least the murderer was found guilty. That’s not a given.
You do another search and read about the rights you have as a trans woman there. You find out that, London, unlike your home town in California, treats some types of verbal harassment as a crime, which gives you a right you don’t have at home, as a lot of similar speech in the US is considered acceptable under our legal system. As you continue reading, you learn that you have the right to use facilities that match your gender. Overall the law is fairly good, but you also discover trans rights are being hotly contested in the UK right now, and you fear that the propaganda spread by the anti-trans groups will predispose some people to be horrible to you. But of course that same propaganda exists here, and similar people are horrible to you here.
So you decide you’ll probably be safe there, but still will need to watch your back. You’re just glad it isn’t a place that makes “cross-dressing” illegal or which refuses to legally recognize your gender. You don’t know what you would have done if your boss wanted you to go somewhere like that. Or even somewhere like Mississippi, where you would have no legal right to use appropriate facilities, where a hotel could refuse you a room when they learn you are trans, and where there are no non-discrimination laws to encourage the vendor you are meeting with to respect your identity.
But now onto the logistics of travel! First, you need to book a plane ticket. Your company uses a travel agent, and your boss has, to be helpful, sent them your information. Since you’re in a minority of trans people, the minority who have changed all legal documentation, and because your boss knows you are female, this isn’t a problem, but you remember that time when you traveled and your boss sent the name you use (but not your legal name at the time) and your gender (but not the one on your ID) to the travel agency. That cost a bunch to fix, because you can’t fly when these don’t reflect your legal ID. It also involved explaining to the travel agent why your name didn’t match — basically giving your medical history to a complete stranger. It was also painful to see those tickets in your “legal” name, a name that represents so much pain and depression, a time in your past you wish you could stay in the past. You’re thankful you’re past that.
You need to do the same thing with the hotel (at least you aren’t renting a car this time!)— they’ll want your legal name, not your preferred name, if these are different. You’re so glad you changed your name and thus won’t be greeted as “Mr. Anderson” when you check into the hotel. Well, maybe. We’ll see. You’re just mostly glad you’re the only woman on this trip, since you really didn’t want to deal with the situation of possibly sharing a room with someone else who might not be comfortable with who you are (you see, the company is trying to save money on hotel costs). The thought of being seen without makeup by a coworker makes you shiver. So you are glad you don’t need to deal with that.
Now the day has arrived for the trip. You have your passport, your tickets, and your itinerary. You wonder what your company has told the vendor you’re meeting, and you hope they’ll be okay with a trans woman. To a lot of people, you’re still “read” as trans. But you push these thoughts aside, as it’s time to book that Uber to the airport.
Oh, shoot, your Uber profile is still in your old name! You definitely don’t want to explain to the driver why your name is Tom or why Tom is wearing a skirt! So you spend twenty minutes figuring out how to change your name on Uber, and hope you actually found the right place to change it (after all, on most sites your name might be stored in several places, such as separately for billing or shipping, and changing it in the obvious place doesn’t necessarily change the name they’ll use for you). You also update your photo, so it actually looks like you. Thankfully, Uber made that part pretty easy.
Your Uber arrives, and, amazingly, the driver helps you load your heavy bag. Awesome! You sit in the back (you feel safer there), and deal with the music the driver picked — it’s only 20 minutes, after all. Before you know it, you are approaching the airport, and the driver asks, “What airline are you flying, sir?” Sir? Damn it. Should you correct them? Everyone else says it is no big deal, but it cuts into your soul, and you’re a assertive, proud trans woman, right? So you say, “It’s ma’am, not sir. I’m flying on EconoAir.” He looks puzzled, and you don’t know if he understood, if he’s disgusted, or if he’s baffled over why you would say it’s “ma’am”. You wonder if your voice further outed you.
When you get to the terminal’s entrance, he again helps you with your bag, and, as he hands you the bag, he says, “Thank you, sir. Have a nice flight.” You don’t bother this time, he’s not going to get it, you’ll always be seen as a man. Nobody is going to ever see the woman you are. Not even with your cute hair you were so happy with yesterday.
You wheel the bag in, and start looking for the ticket machines. Someone looks at you and asks, “Sir, what airline are you flying?” You don’t even respond, you just walk past him. Fuck this. You find the check-in machine and go through all the steps. You’re happy because at least the kiosk knows you are “Ms. Amy Anderson.” It says so right on the screen. Thank goodness for small miracles (after all, it took two months to change your name & gender in your frequent flier account, and that involved sending a copy of your court order and your passport, to prove you aren’t the criminal that they apparently suspected you were). The only reason you bothered to change it is that you want to at least have a shot at an upgrade, as you earned that gold status with this airline!
You tag your bag and hand it to the friendly lady who asks where you’re going and to see your ID. She looks a bit longer than you like, but then smiles, hands it back, and takes your bag. You ask how to get to security. “Right over there, sir.” You just look down and walk towards the general area she pointed. Apparently those earrings and the makeup weren’t enough either. Neither was the ID which clearly indicated “F”.
Thank goodness you went through the hassle of getting pre-check. The regular security line is really long! That’s not the reason you signed up for pre-check, but it is still wonderful to skip some of the wait. You show your boarding pass to the person working the entrance to the pre-check line. She puts her arm out and says, “This line is for pre-check only, sir.” You want to scream, “It’s ma’am! Not sir!” But you just look down and mutter, “It’s ma’am.” She probably didn’t even hear. Then you take back your boarding card and look at it. Sure enough, it doesn’t say anything about pre-check. What the hell? You’ll figure out what happened later, but right now you better get in the other line.
So you wait your turn in that line, and it is your turn to get called to get your ID checked, so the TSA agent calls you up by pointing and saying, “Next in line.” He was saying “Come forward, sir” and “Come forward, ma’am” to everyone else. Oh well, being neuter is better than being seen as a man. He looks at your ID, barely glances at your face, and directs you to one of the lines for X-ray and body scanning.
After waiting for a passenger who couldn’t understand that, no, you can’t bring water bottle, you start unloading your bags and everything else they require you to separate. Apparently at this airport, they don’t want you using a bin for your carry on, and one of the TSA agents makes that clear: “Sir, just lay that bag on the belt.” Your soul is already crushed, so you just do it.
Then your turn comes to walk through the body scanner. You walk in, remembering what this used to be like before you had bottom surgery. Only a small percentage of trans women who want surgery actually have bottom surgery, because it is so expensive. Even if you have good insurance that claims to cover it, it still might cost ten thousand dollars, and that doesn’t include the surgical preparations that can run thousands and which aren’t covered under a lot of plans. Before bottom surgery, you got groped by the TSA every time you went through the machine. You remember that time an agent told you, “we detected an anomaly in your groin area.” You thought, “No shit, but not a problem the TSA can help solve!” At least you don’t have that problem now.
After you assume the position (feet on yellow footprints and hands above your head with elbows pointing out) and get properly irradiated in the body scanner, you step out as directed. The woman running the detector looks a bit puzzled, looks at you again, and says, “Would you mind going back into the machine, I’m going to try something different.” Damn it, you think. You realize she probably hit “male” when she had to select the sex when being scanned. You don’t have male anatomy, so the machine would flag your breasts and bra. You go back in for your second dose of radiation, while hopefully being scanned as a woman. At least that worked, and you’re released from security purgatory! Before surgery, it didn’t matter what button the TSA agent hit, your anatomy didn’t match either expectation. They could program these machines to determine your anatomy automatically and understand trans people exist — it’s just software, after all. But why do that when you can have TSA agents feeling people’s crotches? That’s what really drove you to get pre-check. You subjected yourself to the pre-check interview, gave them your past names and all the other stuff they wanted (in addition to a bunch of money) to get pre-check, all so you could use a metal detector rather than a body scanner. You think that pre-check should be free for people that would basically always set off the scanner machine.
As you’re waiting for your bag to exit the x-ray machine, you look towards the man running x-ray machine. You know what is coming here, it has happened every time you have flown since surgery. Under your surgeon’s guidance, you need to perform some routine physical therapy, and you have some medical devices — vaginal dilators — to do that. They’re basically cylindrical shaped pieces of hard acrylic with a rounded end. You have to carry your set of them (in several sizes, to use as your surgeon indicated) at least for the first year or so. You pack them in your carry-on because they cost about 60 dollars each, and you have five of them, so you don’t want to buy replacements when the airline loses your checked bag. You also really do need them, lest you risk complications, and they aren’t easy items to replace (you need to order them from a specialty company or your doctor).
So, yep, the x-ray attendant noticed the dilators. Another TSA agent comes up to you and asks, “Sir, is that your bag?” Grrr. “It’s ma’am, not sir.” Fortunately he got what you were saying and actually indicated he got it by apologizing and adding “ma’am” at the end of his apology. Small miracle. He then pulls out your case (helpfully labeled “MEDICAL DEVICE”, which doesn’t matter), opens it, and grabs your largest dilator. He holds it as he strokes it with his other hand, presumably to determine if this hard chunk of plastic could be used to beat someone over the head and hijack the plane. You know the drill, these always seem suspicious to security. He then asks, “what are these?” You debate what to say — should you just say “medical device?” Nah, you’re in kind of a bad mood already, so you just smile, look him in the eye, and say, “That is my set of vaginal dilators!” You emphasize the word vaginal. His face changes pretty quickly and he quickly puts them back in the bag. You also make a mental note to wash your dilators when you get to the hotel room — who knows what else that blue-gloved TSA hand was touching today. You’re just glad your coworkers are on a different flight so they aren’t watching this whole thing. You don’t exactly want to talk about your vaginal dilators with your male coworkers. But, on the way home, you will get to do that since you are on the same flight with them, so you’ll go through security together.
After putting your shoes back on, re-packing your carry on, and checking that you didn’t leave your phone or laptop behind, you now head off to your gate.
At the gate, you notice someone in front of you that keeps looking up at you, but looks away when you look at him. He then whispers something to his friend, and they laugh. You know exactly what they are talking about. Well, fuck them, you’re strong enough to deal with this. You look up, smile, and make eye contact. That’s usually enough.
Not this time, though. It seemed to work for a few minutes, and you thought it was successful, so you pull out your computer to catch up on some work emails. Suddenly you see a flash. The asshole took a picture of you.
Before you can get too angry, and figure out which bodily orifice a phone can fit into, you hear your name being called out, “Would Amy Anderson please come up to the ticket counter for a seat assignment?” You realize you hit the jackpot! You’re getting an upgrade! On a trans-Atlantic flight! That makes you forget the asshole taking your picture, at least until you get to the counter and the man asks, “Sir, how can I help you?” You tell him you’re Amy, and, after a bit of a puzzled look, he goes, “uh, oh, OH! Uh, ya, you have been upgraded to business class, here’s your new boarding pass.” He never did say “ma’am” or “Ms.” even after the correction. Maybe he thinks you don’t notice, but you do.
Soon, they call for business class to board. As you get on, you show the attendant your boarding pass and passport, get some far-away computer’s magic approval, and are allowed to head onto your plane. Business class! To London!
A few minutes after you get your bag stowed, a flight attendant stops by and asks, “Sir, would you like something to drink?” You correct him, he apologizes, and then takes your order. At least he apologized. But, still, when you got ready to go out this morning, you thought you looked cute. Obviously not.
He does fine when he brings you your drink, but a few hours into the flight when he brings you a meal, he forgets momentarily, and does the all-too-familiar, “Sir…uh, ma’am, …” At least he corrected himself. That puts his customer service worlds ahead of most people. Even if he still sliced into your soul with the “sir”.
When you land in London, you know exactly what you have to do. You know that after 11 hours of flying, and several hours of dealing with traffic and an airport before that, you have stubble growing on your face. You can’t cover stubble with makeup, no matter how much you cake it on. You know what people see when they see a trans woman with stubble: they see a joke. They don’t realize you’ve already spent $8,000 on electrolysis (none reimbursed by insurance), or that you’ve still got another year or so of treatments before you’ll be done-enough to not need to shave twice a day. They will never know how much pain you’ve went through to get rid of the hair you’ve gotten rid of (that upper lip!). But that pain is less pain than the stubble causes.
So, you rush to an airport bathroom as soon as you get off the plane. Oh good, there’s a single occupancy bathroom here! You don’t have to make anyone else uncomfortable. But of course it is locked. A janitor nearby sees you try the door: “Sir, that toilet is out of service.”
You don’t acknowledge the words, you just turn to your left and enter the women’s toilet.
Of course there is a line. It’s a women’s bathroom. You look down. You don’t want anyone to look at you. You try to be as small as possible, you know how you look. You don’t want to scare people. Even in an airport someone could attack you. After all, you were sexually assaulted while waiting for a plane a few months ago when someone felt they could grab your crotch for whatever sick reason they had. If they’re willing to do that, surely someone might beat up a trans woman using what they see as the “wrong” bathroom. But you know the men’s room isn’t safe for you either, so it’s not like there is a safe option. So you just look down and pray that nobody says anything to you. Fortunately, nobody asks you anything, and you’re able to get to a stall.
You close and latch the door, and are happy that the UK tends to provide more privacy in bathroom stalls, with less gaps for curious people to try to look into. You get out your kit you prepared just for this — you remove your makeup with some wipes, you put your suction-cup mirror on the stall wall, and you take out a razor. You’re going to have to dry-shave (nobody wants to see someone shaving stubble at the sink), and you’ll tear up your face doing it, but what else can you do? The only way you have to even possibly get properly gendered is to go through this. So you finish shaving, and then reapply just basic makeup — just some color-matching (using red lipstick, because red neutralizes the blue shadow that foundation alone won’t hide, and lipstick is way cheaper than color corrector), then foundation and powder. Just enough makeup to cover the shadow, at least somewhat. You look at yourself a bit more in the mirror. You shouldn’t have done that. You just see a man staring back at you. Just like everyone else.
But it will have to do. One of the things you’ve had to learn is to summon the strength to walk out the door, even when you know what you look like. Your other option is to never leave your home.
You’re just glad that you’re not still on spironolactone (or “spiro” as everyone calls it), to reduce your testosterone. You don’t need this drug now that you’ve had surgery. As uncomfortable as bathrooms are still, being on a drug that makes you need to pee frequently is just yet another example of how we are the subject of the universe’s jokes. It’s as if the universe said, “Okay, when these trans women are just starting their transition, when they are least passable, let’s make them use the toilet. A lot.” The promise of being able to stop taking spiro was almost justification in itself to go through everything necessary for surgery.
You stop at the sink just long enough to quickly rinse your hands. Now off to passport control. You present your passport to the agent (after the hour long wait in Heathrow’s passport control queue), he asks a few questions about what you’re doing in the UK, and then stamps your passport. He then hands it back to you, “Here you go, sir.” Sir? Didn’t he see the “F” on my passport? Why did I bother putting on my face again?
You repeat the whole Uber experience, then deal with the hotel greeting you with “Sir.” But finally you’ve made it back to your room. You’re not sure you want to wake up in the morning, because it will be another full day of explaining that you’re a woman to everyone you meet. At least you’ll have something to talk to your therapist about when you get back home.
Yes, many of us go through this when we travel.
We wish we didn’t. With time, sometimes it gets better. But it’s always stressful.
Different people have different experiences. For instance, some of us are out-and-proud trans women. Others might be prefer to just be seen as any other woman would be seen, not as “trans.” Some people have additional intersecting identities that make life even more difficult.
But regardless, most trans women generally don’t travel without a lot of thought. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t travel — I know I love to travel. But that love isn’t without some stress and difficulty. It wouldn’t feel any better to be excluded from travel.
Oh, also, most of the above is adapted from my own experiences. Yes, this shit really happens. Other trans women often have similar experiences.
What can someone do to help? Mostly just provide some understanding. We might be traveling with a lot more stress than most people. Travel days can be some of the worst days of our lives, because over and over again we have interactions with people who don’t know us, people who don’t know to override what the first-instinct greeting when they see us. So mostly we want understanding.
Well, there is one more thing. Please don’t send me to Mississippi. I don’t want to give up some of my human rights.