Getting through the Gates: Travel and Transphobia

January 26


After reading much of Trans Liberation today, I’m thinking about travel, transphobia, and colonialism. I’m lingering on your love of/yearning for travel but inability to actually engage in international travel the way many non-trans individuals can. I wanted to also talk about colonialism and the ways in which tourism (mostly by more affluent individuals from wealthier countries) can be its own form of imperialism, but I’ll limit my focus to airports today.

During your address to the Texas “T” (transgender) Party in 1997, you talked about your struggles with M-or-F boxes on document applications, sharing:

I would like to live in a world in which I would be described as “Les Feinberg.” But I live in a society in which I will never fit either of the little stick figures on public bathrooms signs, and I cannot shoehorn myself into either the “M” or “F” box on document applications.

…So I – and millions like me – are caught in a social contradiction. It’s legally accurate to check off the “F” on my driver’s license permit. But imagine if a state trooper stops me for a taillight violation. He (they have always been he in my experience) sees on “F” on my license but when he shines his flashlight on my face he sees an “M.” Now I’m in the middle of a nightmare over a traffic infraction. So I marked down “M” on my driver’s license application for my own safety. I can be fined and jailed for that simple checkmark with my pen.

I am someone who loves to travel. There isn’t a single spot on this planet I don’t long to see and explore. But the M-or-F boxes on passport applications kept me under virtual “house arrest” in this country for most of my life. (20)

You ended up ordering a short-form birth certificate without a gender box which enabled you to apply for a passport as a “M” with your gender ambiguous birth name. In that moment, you became a felon. But, you declared,

I’m not afraid. If I am arrested at any time because of my identification papers, I’ll let our communities everywhere know. We are all vulnerable where our identification documents are concerned. I think we could make a hell of a fight out of such an arrest by demanding the M-or-F boxes be removed from documents like passports and driver’s licenses. (21)

I have many privileges, Les, including past experiences traveling overseas. As a child, I studied Japanese in an immersion program in Portland* Public Schools. With the help of years-long fundraising efforts, my classmates and I were able to travel to Japan twice. Once at the end of fifth grade, and once in eight grade for a short research residency. I turned 11 during the first trip. I was 13 during the second.

During both trips my gender confounded many. With my short hair, I was regularly mistaken for a boy. In one Fukuno elementary school classroom, I realized my US peers’ name tags were colorcoded by gender when the teacher tried changing mine to blue. Because I didn’t yet know I could be something other than a girl or boy, I simply defended my gender, repeating 男の子じゃない!私は、女の子です!— “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl!”

My color changed a couple times.

As someone who enjoyed confusing others (I realize now it was a relief for someone to not be so certain I was a girl), this was a funny experience. But I understand how these experiences can quickly become old and/or demoralizing, especially after passing out of childhood when people are cut more slack for looking androgynous.

It would be humiliating to answer invasive questions about gender and genitalia, and endure pat downs, strip searches, and X-ray scans by people who have no business touching our bodies, especially with so much ignorance or revulsion. The system does not need to be like this. Our gender, nor a tiny box, should not influence our ability to get through a gate.

It is not my desire to be read as a woman but as an assigned female at birth (AFAB) person usually misgendered as woman, and white, I can comfortably wade through security and customs. Any gendered address from an airport employee would bother me, but I do not enter airports expecting my appearance or ID to set off alarms. I make it through just fine. My middle-class upbringing may play a big part in this, Les; I move with confidence that I deserve to be there as much as anyone else, and I speak fluent standard English. Far more privileges than I will ever realize cushion me in this life.

What are some places you would have visited, Les? If your passport didn’t involve committing a felony? Even if it did?

Will I ever be read as someone not female or male in a respectful way by non-trans folks? What is trans enough? What do others see when they look at me and why? What have they been taught not to see?

To anyone else who may find these scraps of words, what are your experiences navigating airports? Traveling domestically or internationally as a trans person? What do you think holds you up? What allows you to pass through gates?

*I’m always hesitant to mention Portland by name because it’s rapidly gentrifying.  Non-trans and trans folks alike are moving here in droves and outside developers are in some cases drastically changing neighborhoods. While there are of course some pleasurable changes, Portland is the most gentrified U.S. city of the 21st century and it hurts to see so many communities pushed to the city’s fringes, if not out entirely, including Black Portlanders. Raised in what was not so long ago a far more working class neighborhood, I don’t see how I’ll be able to remain in my own neighborhood let alone area of town after moving out of my family home.

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