The Summer holiday season has got into full swing and our annual camping trips are coming up fast. We’ve been thinking about the potential challenges of travelling as a trans or gender variant person, inspired by our short survey about trans and gender variant people’s experience of using airports in the UK. We’ve had some insightful responses.
Below Gendered Intelligence’s Communications Officer Jamie shares his recent experience of flying through an airport in the US.
In June, I travelled to the US to attend Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. After a short trip to New York, my partner and I flew back to London through JFK.
You might not be aware that all passengers who travel through airports in the US are obliged to undergo a fully body scan as a security check. In times of increased surveillance at airports, travellers from marginalised communities, including trans people, have reported facing an uncomfortable degree of scrutiny while flying.
There is no reason that anyone should find the experience of a full body scanner comfortable, but for trans and intersex people there can be added difficulties. The scanner is calibrated to recognise “female” or “male” bodies. Any body parts that cannot be mapped on to those figures show up as anomalies on the security system.
While you stand inside the machine with your hands above your head, an image of your body is checked by security personnel. Depending on the system in use, this image is either an accurate representation of your naked body, or a cartoon-like figure.
If an anomaly is detected, the passenger is then subjected to an additional security procedure – which generally means a pat down and a hand swab to check for explosive material.
I had travelled through airports in the US a few times before and gritted my teeth through several scans – for some reason, my body had never registered as an “anomaly”. This time, I wasn’t so lucky. Once I exited the body scanner, a security officer gestured to me to step to the side, instead of passing through to collect my hand luggage.
The security officer proceeded to give me a pat down. As he passed his hands over my chest, a look of surprise registered on his face: “What is that?”. I haven’t yet had top surgery.
“I’m transgender”. The officer seemed mildly confused. I told him that I was “born female”. These aren’t the words I would ideally use to describe my situation, but I wanted to avoid further confusion. It worked – the penny dropped. The officer smiled sheepishly as he swabbed my hands. He turned out to be kind, and almost puzzled that I had got myself into this position, as if I could have made the situation easier for myself.
Unfortunately, airlines do not provide you with a guide to being “trans at the airport” to navigate the current system. Travellers who do not match conventional expectations of gender have to rely on airport staff to have sufficient knowledge and act sensitively in response to it. As the #TravellingWhileTrans (or #TravelingWhileTrans) hashtag attests, many airports are spectacularly far off of the mark.
I found my experience at JFK embarrassing at worst. If I was more vulnerable, or was treated in a less respectful way by the security offer, it could have been traumatic. We can’t be expected to depend on the benevolence of individual security staff or having had a particular type of surgery in order to feel safe.
Gendered Intelligence is planning to take 70 young trans people camping this August. It’s a massive undertaking by our team, but we know that the camping trip has a huge impact on the young people who take part.
To make the two camping trips happen, we have to raise £12,000 by the 12th of August.We need your support. We’re over halfway there, but there’s still a steep climb until we reach our target.