FWT (Flying While Transgender)


I hate flying. I mean, I HATE flying. I’d rather drive six hours to Los Angeles than fly for an hour and a half. I’m not afraid to fly. It’s just that flying has become such a huge Pain. In. The. Ass. Waiting in a long line to check in. Waiting in another long line to go through security. Waiting in yet another long line to board the plane. Cramming myself into a tiny seat with no leg room and breathing recirculated air for hours on end. And traveling with a small child – complete with car seat and other random cumbersome gear – just makes the experience that much more obnoxious. Not to sound like a total prima donna, but I’d rather stay put and have people come to me.  (Upon reading that last sentence, I realize that I do, in fact, sound like a TOTAL prima donna.)

However, I’m well aware of the fact that I’ve got it pretty easy. In fact, I think I have it a lot easier than some people. If I had a physical disability and needed assistance, flying would be a much bigger hassle. If I were from a different ethnic background, particularly, in this post-9/11 era, if I were of Middle Eastern descent, my name would undoubtedly be on some list, and I’d be subjected to much more scrutiny. However, I couldn’t find a single psychological study that addressed the experiences of Flying While Transgender. Which is interesting, given that airport security procedures can be extraordinarily stressful for trans- and gender-variant people.

A few weeks ago, Ben Hudson, who is the executive director of the Gender Health Center here in Sacramento, posted a link on his Facebook page to the TSA site for transgender travelers. If you are trans or gender-variant, and you plan on flying, this site should be required reading. Actually, this site should also be required reading for those of us with cisgender privilege – because if you fit nicely and neatly into our two-category gender system, numerous advantages are afforded to you, most of which are probably taken completely for granted.

This is what the TSA site says under the first heading, “Preparing for Travel”:

Making Reservations: Secure Flight requires airlines to collect a traveler’s full name, date of birth, gender and Redress Number (if applicable) to significantly decrease the likelihood of watch list misidentification. Travelers are encouraged to use the same name, gender, and birth date when making the reservation that match the name, gender, and birth date indicated on the government-issued ID that the traveler intends to use during travel.

Theoretically, if the name, gender, and birth date on your driver’s license (or other ID) matches the name, gender, and birth date on your travel reservation, then everything should be fine. Right?  Except for many transpeople, getting your name and gender changed on various identity documents, such as your birth certificate, driver’s license, passport, etc. may not be so easy. A recently-issued report by the Center for American Progress, titled, “ID Accurately Reflecting One’s Gender Identity is a Human Right,” documents the numerous obstacles that have been placed in the way of obtaining accurate ID, creating financial, medical, and legal barriers. In the United States, different states have different policies regarding how identity documents are issued or amended. In one state, getting a new driver’s license with an updated photo, name, and gender label might be relatively easy. Getting a new birth certificate might be fairly simple as well. But even though Tennessee is the only state that outright prohibits the amendment of birth certificates for transgender people, it’s not uncommon for states, in practice, to refuse to amend identity documents so that a transperson’s gender identity is accurately reflected.  And, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, forty percent of people who presented ID that did not match their gender identity experienced some form of harassment. Although the TSA makes clear that transgender people should be treated with dignity and respect while traveling, the reality is that not having ID that is congruent with one’s gender identity is, well, risky.

Here’s the next section of the TSA site:

Packing a Carry-on: All carry-on baggage must go through the screening process. If a traveler has any medical equipment or prosthetics in a carry-on bag, the items will be allowed through the checkpoint after completing the screening process. Travelers may ask that bags be screened in private if a bag must be opened by an officer to resolve an alarm. Travelers should be aware that prosthetics worn under the clothing that alarm a walk through metal detector or appear as an anomaly during Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) screening may result in additional screening, to include a thorough pat-down. Travelers may request a private screening at any time during the security screening process.

If a transperson hasn’t been outed because of ID-related issues, it’ll likely happen during some part of the screening process. If a person is taking medications, such as injectable hormones that require syringes, this will undoubtedly lead to higher levels of scrutiny. If a person is wearing items with metal, such as a metal boned corset, an underwire bra, or metal binding materials, they will likely set off airport metal detectors and require additional screening. If screening involves what’s called “advanced imaging technology,” in which, depending on the scanning machine being used, the screener would be able to see what genitals a person has, as well as any binding or prostheses. “This is why I don’t fly,” one Facebook user declared in response to this information.

Numerous psychological studies have investigated the factors that predict a fear of flying, or an avoidance of air travel. The most common factor among these studies? Stress and worry about check-in and security checks. Makes sense to me.

In addition to the information provided by the TSA, the National Center for Transgender Equality has provided a tip sheet for transgender travelers. Everyone has the right to a respectful and dignified travel experience.

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Filed under gender nonconformity, human rights, psychological research, Sacramento, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized

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