Traveling While Trans
As an accomplished traveler, jetting off to explore a new city would not be difficult for me. Traveling as a transgender woman who only passes some of the time is a completely different story.
I’ve already described my state of mind (nervous!) in the t-minus twelve hours time frame of the trip in a previous article. Now I’d like to take the opportunity to describe what that first day of traveling was like, what my expectations and fears were going into this trip, and how reality varied from those expectations. There was also an internal monologue that was playing on a loop inside my head that deserves some attention as well.
Perhaps you’re a transgender person who has yet to travel as your authentic self, and the fear of the unknown is holding you back from experiencing all that life has to offer by keeping you from exploring the world. My hope for you is that this article will provide you with the knowledge and confidence that you need to boldly go out and explore this world in which you live.
Maybe you’re a closeted trans person who is wondering how the world will perceive you if you decide to come out. For you I hope that this article will shed some light onto how the greater world perceives people like us and provides you a periscope view out onto a life that you are terrified to even consider for yourself.
For the cisgender (not trans) folks who have stumbled upon this article and are simply curious, hopefully this will provide you a perspective on what life is like for transgender people, and how important it is that you treat us with the same kindness and respect as any other human being in the world.
My trip took me from Southeast Michigan to Denver, Colorado. I originally booked the trip to visit a transgender sister that I’ve become quiet close with through our blogs, email correspondence, and encouraging SMS messages and phone calls. It wasn’t long after deciding to go on this trip to meet her that I also made the decision to meet her as Saoirse, not as Ronan. I then took that line of thought one more step further and decided to complete the entire trip as an openly transgender woman.
Up until this trip, I’ve only presented as female a handful of times, and only for a few hours at a time. I’m at a stage in my life where I feel the need express my authentic self more, and living in two worlds, as Ronan the man in public and Saoirse the woman in private, is becoming more and more difficult for me emotionally. This trip provided a way for me to experience what life as Saoirse could be like on a long term basis, without fear of discovery from my friends, family, and coworkers that I have yet to come out to. Contemplating living the rest of my life full-time as a woman was simply too overwhelming, so this was a useful experiment for me to understand what life might be like as Saoirse full-time.
I wanted to leave for the airport as beautiful and full of confidence as possible, so I scheduled an appointment with my gender therapist followed by an appointment to have my hair and eyebrows done at a local salon. In retrospect this was a mistake, and forced me to navigate too many activities while anxious and out of sorts. First-time trans travelers take note: Lesson 1 — get lots of rest and keep your activity level low in the hours leading up to departure.
Leaving the house before my appointments was when the inner monologue started, and it persisted throughout the afternoon and evening at differing volumes. The messages were clear; the coward that lives within me wanted to give up. “This trip is a stupid idea…Your wasting your time…You need to just go back to being Ronan and stop this transgender nonsense before you end up divorced and alone…You don’t have the time off work to be doing this...You don’t have the money available to cover the costs of this trip…You’re going to be all alone…Your going to be bored out of your skull…You’re not going to be able to get the courage to even leave your hotel room, and you’ll be stuck in the room for four nights with nothing to do…Your friend is going to freaked out by the idea that you’re actually going there, and she isn’t going to want to meet you.” This inner monologue is quite familiar to me and tends to surface when my stress level is high. It has never been louder than it was in the hours leading up to and during this trip.
The hair appointment was nice, but it forced me to present as female near my home and place of work, and I’m not out to many people yet. The fear of discovery dominated my thoughts and I really had to focus on being present in the moment to enjoy the salon experience, which I’ve been led to believe many women actually enjoy. Because of this, it became a nerve-wracking, hot, and sweaty experience for me. My stylist was the ultimate professional and was beyond pleasant to talk to. I felt like I was being treated like any other woman there. Once I managed to calm myself down and focus on that, I was able to enjoy a small portion of the experience. Side note for my sisters who are familiar with the ordeal of laser and electrolysis hair removal; by comparison having one’s eyebrows waxed is a piece of cake.
After the hair appointment I left straightaway for the airport. I found a spot in the parking garage and I had enough time to relax in the car for a bit before heading into the airport. Due to the fact that I scheduled too many activities too closely together prior to my departure, I was unable to apply the glue-on nails that I had shaped and polished prior to leaving the house, so I decided to do so before I headed in. This was a mistake. Using only the interior dome light in the car, I tried to attach small, flimsy, and increasingly difficult to grasp pieces of painted plastic to my fingernails.
While I was able to get the nails affixed to my fingers, it took much longer than I anticipated, and I ended up getting the glue everywhere. The polished finish of the false nails was ruined, and I had a mixture of nail glue and polish everywhere on my fingers. What a mess I made! First-time trans travelers take note: Lesson 2— Practice attaching false nails at home using good lighting and tweezers, not in the poorly lit interior of your car within the airport parking garage.
So, the moment I was dreading the most was now upon me. Navigating the airport as an openly transgender woman and attempting to clear TSA security with my presentation clearly at odds with the gender markers on my ID. As I walked into the departures area of the airport towards the counter where I would check my bag, I tried to remind myself that I was probably not the first, second, or even tenth transgender person they had seen that day. I printed my boarding pass at the kiosk and walked over to the people waiting in line to check their bags.
My turn came up and I held my chin high and walked boldly over to the airline attendant. I set my suitcase on the scale and handed her my boarding pass and passport, my other hand grasping my identification letter tightly inside my purse just in case she decided to ask me ANY questions. She looked at my ID, then looked at me, the wheels turning for a few seconds (eternity!), and then she handed my documents back and gave me a smile before she printed the label to wrap onto the handle of my suitcase. I returned a smile but was unable to relax much as I walked over to the TSA security area. Whew…breathe Saoirse! Remember to breathe I told myself over and over.
I repeated the process with the TSA agent, handing him my passport and boarding pass. Again he looked at my ID, looked at me, a few more eternious seconds passed by, and then another smile and thank you were bestowed upon me. Wow! It really couldn’t be this easy, could it? Both ID hurdles cleared, I relaxed my grip on my identification letter and headed over to the scanners. With my shoes off and my laptop pulled out of my bag I stepped into the body scanner. Damn! I forgot to tell them they should scan me as a male. That was a tip passed along at a transgender support group session a few months ago.
“Please step out and hold your arms like this, ma’am,” the TSA agent said. I held my elbows up to shoulder level, arms bent as she frisked my torso. My stomach-shaper had some plastic boning in it to hold my man-gut in a bit, and I wondered to myself if that had appeared suspicious on the scanner. She told me I was free to go, so I went over to the conveyor to wait for my carry-on, purse, shoes, and laptop to come through the scanner.
The TSA agent at the luggage scanner was pulling all the women’s purses off the conveyor onto a separate luggage chute, and mine was caught in the process. I collected the rest of my things, put my shoes back on, and waited for my purse to be rescued. It took forever as they hand-searched each bag. When the agent got to mine, he asked if I had any sharp objects in the bag. I warned him I had some jewelry in it and showed him which pocket it was in. He pulled out my USB battery pack that I use when my phone needs a charge and no outlets are to be found, and once he saw what that was that he seemed satisfied that they had found what they were looking for and he sent me on my way.
Between the nail fiasco in the car and the extra time at TSA, I lost any extra time I would have had to eat some dinner, so I headed straight to the gate as they would be boarding soon. I was somewhat nervous that someone I might know would recognize me in the airport, so I kept my gaze fixed straight ahead and avoided eye contact as much as possible. I stopped at the women’s restroom closest to my gate for one last bathroom break before boarding the plane, and it was uneventful and drama free. I’ve been into a public women’s room a few times now while presenting as female, and I surprised myself a bit with how little anxiety I felt about going into the women's’ room at the airport.
Once aboard the plane, I found myself the first to arrive in my row in an aisle seat. I sat down but kept my seat-belt off as I knew I would need to stand up again to let others in to their seats. A few minutes later, an older couple approached my row, and I saw the woman’s brow furrow as she pointed at their seats next to me. I stood up and I could feel her studying my face a bit as she squeezed by me. She got halfway in and then started to back out of the row. She took another quick glance at me, and then told her husband to go ahead and take the window seat. It occurred to me that she might be protecting her husband from the horrible trans woman she just clocked, or perhaps it was the other way around and she was protecting me from him?Interestingly enough, it never occurred to me at the time that she may have thought I was a cisgender woman and she didn’t want her husband next to me because she worried he may find me attractive. Regardless, he sat at the window and she sat between us.
During the flight, I put my earbuds in and listened to music while finishing a book on my Kindle app. About twenty minutes into the flight, I felt the woman next to me tap my shoulder, so I pulled an earbud out and asked her what she needed. She asked me how I got the screen on the back of the headrest in front of me to turn off. I told her I hadn’t touched it and I thought it turned itself off, but I asked if she wanted me to try to turn hers off for her. She said yes, so I went into the menu and turned it off for her. She was appreciative and thanked me. Other than that, I was spared having to interact with anyone else on the flight. That was more than fine with me as I was in so much fear of having a trans-negative experience and was hoping to coast into Denver without expending too much emotional energy.
Deplaning was a straightforward affair, and I was starting to notice how tired I was getting by that time. The anxiety and the nerves had taken quite a toll, and it was past midnight at home. By the time I was able to locate my luggage claim I didn’t feel like waiting on a Lyft or Uber ride, so I hopped in the next taxi in line. Yet again, this was a travel mistake, as the taxi ride to the hotel was exorbitant in cost. First-time trans travelers take note: Lesson 3 — Don’t let your anxiety get the best of you and wear you out. Stick to your travel plan and budget as much as is safely possible.
Checking in at the hotel was the only time that day when I was mis-gendered, and I honestly feel that it wasn’t done out of maliciousness, because the young man in charge of checking in guests at that late hour simply greeted me with, “Hey man, how’s it going?” I’m reasonably convinced he greets everyone that comes to his reception desk with “Hey man” regardless of their gender. My enduring memory of him that night was that of a surfer dude caught in a situation far out of his element.
Tired out of my mind, but unable to fall asleep right away, I took my time putting away all my clothes and hanging everything that needed to de-wrinkle on hangers in the closet. I then took some time and a liberal amount of nail polish remover and cleaned up the nasty glue and nail polish mess that I had made out of my hands earlier in the night. I then trimmed and re-polished my nails and finally, unable to remain conscious any longer, collapsed into bed after removing my makeup.
Beyond the handful of lessons I noted above, if I learned anything from my first time travelling while openly transgender, it was that reality tends to vary quite dramatically from the worst of the fears conjured up by my transphobic imagination. I did not encounter any harassment for being trans, and society largely afforded me the same respect given to the cisgender women travelling alongside me. I also found myself wondering how much more difficult it would be for someone who doesn’t pass as well as I do to navigate these spaces, much less a non-passing transgender person of color. It is good for me to reflect on these lessons while owning my privilege.
Based on my experience, for those considering travelling while trans, I say, “Be safe! Be bold! Have an adventure!”