The Risks Of Traveling While Trans

flickr/Katie Lips

My girlfriend and I were on our way to see our other partner out in New Jersey. In retrospect, this should have been a red flag on its own — nothing good can come of a trip to Jersey. Low on gas after exiting the tunnel from Manhattan, we stopped at the first rest stop for fuel and coffee. As we returned to the parked car, we looked up adoringly at the pink and purple streaks glazing the handful of trees between us and the New York skyline. “Hey, New Jersey!” I yelped with jubilation, happy to get a little nature in my system after the oppressive concrete of Manhattan. “Look at the fucking sunset!” We laughed. “Calm down,” my girlfriend mock-chided. “People don’t like us as much out here.” We laughed some more, climbing in the car and preparing for the second leg of the trip.

That’s when the state trooper knocked on her window.

“License and registration,” came the gruff cliche, which we continued by dutifully replying, “Is there a problem, officer?” in stereo. We felt numb. The problem was obvious, but neither could believe it; we needed confirmation.

It was forthcoming.

“We’ve just had some reports of suspicious activity, drug use. We’re making random checks,” said the trooper from behind his mirrored sunglasses. I was too nervous to laugh at the trope come to life, or even to ask him for identification. It’s easy to remember everything legal experts say you’re supposed to do when you get pulled over — that is, when you’re not face-to-face with Johnny Law. No matter who you are, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

We waggled our Starbucks cups at him, saying that we’d just stopped for coffee and why were we being detained? There was, we were informed, apparently no need for an “attitude.”

My girlfriend handed over her documents. “Where are you headed?” We told him. “Why?”

“We’re visiting our girlfriend,” said my girlfriend. I tensed. Too much information.

“You having a party?”

“No,” I said, just as my girlfriend said “yes.” I laughed in what I hoped was a disarming way. “Well, with just the three of us, yeah.”

“All right,” said the trooper, and returned to his car to run her information.

While he was gone, my girlfriend and I just looked at each other, unable to believe we were actually being profiled for being transgender. Being white, when I presented as male, a “random stop” was almost unthinkable; for my girlfriend, who passes for white, the situation was similar. Knowing intellectually, however, that your male privilege is gone is different from having that fact shoved in front of your face by a law enforcement official.

But although we might not have been able to believe it, many, many of our fellow trans women sure can. Yo Gabba Gabba! animator and comics creator Shadi Petosky, for example, went through a grueling ordeal last September when TSA agents classified her penis as an “anomaly” and subjected her to 40 minutes of misgendering, privacy invasion, and veiled accusations of terrorism before letting her go — after her flight had left, of course (and after her anguish had gone viral). American Airlines then informed Shadi that a ticket out of the hostile Orlando airport would cost nearly $1,000. When she cried, TSA told her to “get herself together” and escorted her back out of the secure area.

Meagan Taylor wouldn’t have much trouble believing we were profiled, either. Last July, she was driving through Des Moines with another trans friend on their way to a funeral. A staff member at the Drury Inn, however, was so convinced they were sex workers that they called the police and Taylor was arrested. This is a sad reflection of how common it is for cis people to be on the lookout for us, many believing we’re all sex workers and/or addicts — particularly those of us who aren’t white. Terrible things can happen when anyone catches a hint of stubble, a deep voice, or suspiciously large shoulders. And so it was with Taylor; because she didn’t have her hormone prescription on her at the time, she spent the next eight days in jail. She missed the funeral.

But you don’t have to go back to 2015 to find a fellow traveler who’d believe our story. Ask writer and comedian Ari Bianca, who was told by Air Transat officials that her Italian passport photo and “M” gender marker were suspicious and that she wouldn’t be allowed to board. Bianca had previously traveled with that passport, her Argentinian passport (which has a newer photo and an “F” marker — the Italian bureaucracy is notoriously difficult to navigate for trans people), and a sworn affidavit linking the two. Nevertheless, she was turned away and trapped in Glasgow, “losing out on [her] anniversary holiday and on meeting long-distance friends.”

There are, in fact, so many stories like this, that Twitter users have created and regularly update a hashtag for documenting them: #TravelingWhileTrans.

Further, of the 6,436 respondents in the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2011 study Injustice at Every Turn, 17% reported harassment or disrespect at an airport or by the TSA in particular, while 11% reported that they were denied equal service at an airport. For buses, trains, and taxis, that range widened to 22% and 9%, respectively, with 29% reporting harassment by a police officer. Six percent of respondents reported that an officer had assaulted them outright.

Going outside in any capacity is statistically a bad idea if you’re trans — no less so in this era of gender-policing “bathroom bills” — and the longer you travel, the more likely you are to have a negative experience. Meagan Taylor is lucky to have made it out of her jail cell alive and physically unharmed, much less won her court case; other trans women of color haven’t been so fortunate. According to the NCTE study, “15% of Black respondents interacting with police reported physical assault and 7% reported sexual assault.” Ari and Shadi, meanwhile, reaped the “benefits” of conditional white privilege: they “merely” had their travel plans utterly ruined by transmisogyny, and were dehumanized for daring to demand the same treatment as cis folks.

All of this percolated in my head as I waited for the police officer to return to our car. I wondered: What’s going to happen to me? Would the police officer search the car? Where would he plant evidence to start building his case against us? Would my girlfriend and I be arrested under suspicion of prostitution or drug smuggling? What would the cop’s excuse be to beat or sexually abuse us? What were we going to do?

The trooper returned a few minutes later and handed my girlfriend her paperwork back. “Have a good night,” he waved, and walked out of our lives. That’s what he probably thought, anyway; in reality however, his intrusion will never fully leave me. I felt numb, my welling anger and fear only distant sensations — and the sheer joy I’d just yelled to the wind long gone. For the first time I truly understood what it meant to be profiled, to have my life under scrutiny merely for existing in the way that makes me feel alive. Despite my conscious knowledge of the police establishment’s many atrocities against Americans, part of me (the whitest part) had clung to the illusion that any given police officer was still invested in my wellbeing.

How naive I’d been.

As we drove away, I tried to joke the building outrage out of my system. If he was really looking for someone suspicious, I smirked to my girlfriend, why not knock on the door of the guy in the crisp button-up shirt driving a Tacoma 4x4 off-road truck? What businessman needs all-wheel capability, and what off-roader wants to look like they’re starring in Glengarry Glen Ross? Seems shady. But in the back of my mind, I knew that there was no joke I could tell that would change the grim reality with which I’d just been confronted: We had just dodged a bullet — and we’ll be dodging more — or at least attempting to — for the rest of our lives.

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