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#TravelingWhileTrans

He (Head of Airport Security, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport, Ahmedabad) – “Are you a woman or are you planning to become a woman?”

Me – “I identify as a woman”

He (evidently implying if I got an Oprah down there) – “But are you already a {[(WOMAN)]}…?”

‘Traveling’ can guarantee anxiety disorders for anyone identifying as trans. We are humiliated, exotified, and misgendered wherever we go – restaurants, banks, parlors, shopping malls… you name it. However, the worst on the list are the explicitly gender-segregated spaces. I am talking security checks at airports (and public restrooms, but let’s reserve that one for a separate piece).

A quick Google Search shows that people identifying as trans or gender non-conforming often face issues when traveling. USA has been a serial offender, with the hashtag TravelingWhileTrans gaining momentum on social media after the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)’s nationwide airport security procedures were perceived as transphobic. Unlike countries like India which continue to use only metal detectors and pat downs for security check, USA introduced a full-body scanning using advanced imaging technology. What happened here is that as travelers would appear for a full-body scan, the TSA officers selected between male and female options on a screen based on stereotypical physical traits to initiate the scanning process. Trans, intersex and gender non-conforming travelers often set off the trigger and were more likely subjected to pat-downs and interrogations, which was deemed by the travelers as ‘invasive’. Writer and Producer Shadi Petosky missed her flight after being detained at the Orlando Airport and interrogated for over forty-minutes. Catalina Pilar, a pre-op transgender female, broke down in tears after she was ‘asked to lift up her skirt to prove she had boy parts’ and not contraband under her dress, while Eliot Johnson was forced to take off his chest binder and prosthetic penis as the TSA employee insensitively remarked, “She still has her female parts”.

Then there are cases of trans people being detained and deported from certain countries due to their identities. Gigi Gorgeous, a Canadian socialite, was put through to a lengthy ordeal when she landed in Dubai and was barred from entering the country as she was trans. Similarly, Indian activist Abhina Aher had a humiliating experience during a layover at Abu Dhabi, where the security was confounded by the ‘T’ mentioned under Gender on her passport. Twitter User Logan S. Casey summarizes that the ‘Institutionalized, routine transphobia and ignorance’ can make life miserable for trans individuals while flying.

I too feel very anxious when I have to travel by flight. I wear women’s clothes, however I am not on hormones yet and neither am I stereotypically feminine. So I fear someone would call me out (or worse) if I approach the women’s queue during security check, and end up joining the men against my wish.

A few weeks back, when I had to fly down from Ahmedabad to Mumbai for a party, I was almost paralyzed at the thought of going through another humiliating security screening. Just an hour before reaching the airport, my dysphoria hit its peak and I decided to ring up my friend for advice. She identified as transgender herself and was an extremely self-assured woman. All she told me is – “You must tell them confidently ‘I am a transgender woman’. They will understand”. I had come out to my friends, co-workers, and some family members, but refrained from declared my gender identity in such public spaces. Strangers ridiculed me as such for my other ‘oddities’, and I thought labeling myself as ‘transgender’ would further otherize me and subject me to discrimination. Nevertheless, my friend’s words inspired me to take a chance.

So here’s what happened the first time I was #TravelingWhileTrans. After depositing my baggage, I head to the security check-in, gathering my courage with every step. As I approached the screening area, a female guard ushered me to the men’s queue. I told her politely that I identified as transgender and wished to be frisked by a woman. She immediately directed me to the head of security who then began probing me on whether I was a woman or planned to become one. In no mood to lecture him about gender, I simply asserted that I identified as a woman though I hadn’t updated my documents. We went back and forth for about seven minutes, after which I was urged to let a male guard frisk me with a metal detector, and assured that there would be no physical contact. A female guard would be summoned in case my carry-on baggage was to be inspected. I was frisked separately rather than being asked to join the men’s queue. While this wasn’t the most desirable arrangement, I felt relieved and encouraged to find the guards treating me respectfully.

My experience at Chattrapati Shivaji International Airport Mumbai was even better as the guards allowed me to be frisked by a woman, despite remarking initially that ‘the staff might not agree as I didn’t appear typically transgender’. Basically, I hadn’t shaved that day nor put any makeup or nail-paint, and my body hair peeked through my kurti. I jokingly told them that ‘I chose to appear in time rather than appearing as trans’. My requests weren’t met with hostility as I had imagined, and I realized these people were genuinely trying to help me out.

While both these encounters were quite positive, I dread the day I am held back and subjected to a prolonged and needless inspection just because of my identity. Trans people are just as entitled as others to public spaces, and the constant scrutiny of our bodies and our identities not only discourages us from accessing them but affects our mental health. We need airline security that doesn’t simply brush off trans-people’s concerns as ‘standard security protocol’ unless the trans-people facing interrogation are monetarily compensated because they surely need to spend on therapy post their ordeal. Besides the need for further sensitization efforts, maybe hire more trans persons as part of airline security since your cis-addled minds can’t comprehend our queerness. And we definitely should rethink those darn crotch-and-chest-highlighting full body scanners (which haven’t made it to India yet, fortunately)! Most importantly, we as the trans community must get out of this habit of constantly ‘adjusting’ for others and be humiliated, exotified, and misgendered. Only when we get active in asserting our identities at such public spaces, regardless of whether we ‘look the part’ or not, shall we succeed in making lives better for us.

What has been your experiences #TravelingWhileTrans? Share your experiences with us.

 

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