Don’t Forget Your Name, or Your Gender: the Trans, Nonbinary, and Queer Travel Guide
We all know that travel is great. And we also all know that the actual processes of traveling can be frustrating and exhausting, taking quite a lot of mental and emotional effort even on the best of days.
But when you present as nonbinary or are transgender, there are additional concerns (and sometimes horror stories) to think about. All you have to do is look at the #travelingwhiletrans hashtag to quickly see exactly what I’m talking about.
Personally, I’m nonbinary and use they/them pronouns (though I tend to get read as somewhat of a dapper or gothic female). And as a traveler, I know how confusing it can be for queer and trans people to mentally, emotionally, and physically prepare for even domestic trips.
So, I’m here to help.
Note: Some of these issues are things I’ve dealt with myself, and some are things I’ve learned from friends and acquaintances. In those latter instances, I’ll be protecting their privacy by not naming them.
Everyone’s first (and favorite) concern: IDs.
It’s no shock that having an ID with a name and gender that aren’t accurate or don’t match your presentation can present problems for trans and queer travelers. This is a concern shared not only by transgender and nonbinary people, but also by anyone who has had a name change (Get married recently? This applies to you too!).
Here’s what you can do.
Even if the name on your ticket was your legal name at time of purchase, your name might not completely match up with your IDs (such as a passport or state ID). This means having additional proof on hand.
Unfortunately, “having additional proof on hand” often means carrying around a certified copy of a name change order, adoption papers, or a marriage license to provide the paper trail needed. I travel with a copy of my name change order — as in my case, my entire name (first, middle, and last) has all changed. This way, confusion is avoided.
Certified copies range in cost, but I was able to get mine for $5 USD, as the original order (at the time of the name change) was already paid for. Check with your state and city vital records department for more information on how much copies cost.
A good plan is to also scan in a copy and have it accessible from your phone or computer. While this does not replace having the physical copy on hand at places like airports, it can prove valuable when traveling if there is discrepancy between a name on a reservation and your current name.
Want to update your state ID? US travelers tend to have vastly different requirements for this, depending on the state, and even with the Real ID program going into effect in 2018. That said, depending on where you are, state ID/driver’s licenses may require particular bits of documentation or even surgery (!) to change certain markers, such as name or gender.
In general, updating (or getting) your passport seems to be your best bet. Passports are our national government identification, can be used to travel both nationally and internationally, and the US Department of State does not require surgery (!) to change a gender marker on a passport. It does, however, require a letter of “proper treatment” from your physician (more specifics about what that must entail at the link), which can be more flexible.
If this is an option for you, talk to your doctor and file for a passport or passport renewal through the Department of State immediately!
If your name change has happened within a year of you obtaining your passport, you’re in luck! You have the chance to file for a clerical correction and change your name without having to go through the process of passport renewal. If your name change happened over a year after you got your passport, you’ll unfortunately have to file to renew it.
Read up on the latest official TSA guidance.
Those full-body scanners? If you choose to opt-in to using one, a TSA official will select a gender marker for the scanner based on how you present. Unsurprisingly, if you read as male, the TSA official will select “male” for the scanner. Also unsurprisingly, if you read as female, the TSA official will select “female” for the scanner.
This is obviously problematic if your body does not conform to what the scanners are programmed to perceive as “male” or “female.” And it can — and has — created delays. If the scanner does not expect to see (say) a penis, and does, it will flag you as an “anomaly.” Likewise if it does not expect to see (say) breasts, but it does.
This can be humiliating. Your body is not an anomaly (or, by their logic, every body is an anomaly, as no two bodies are completely identical).
TSA officials are always supposed to give you the option to opt-out of a full-body scan. If they don’t, ask. And if you go for the pat-down, you have a right to request a companion to be present with you and the official.
The National Center for Transgender Equality has an extensive “Know Your Rights: Airport Security” page that is particularly handy here.
Speaking of which: Going to a small airport? Call ahead.
Working with the TSA staff at the airport you are going to is always a good idea. This has led to airports being more sensitive in their approaches in some instances, because instead of transgender or gender non-conforming folks being “an other,” the officials are now dealing with a concerned individual.
If you call ahead and say, for instance, “I have a prosthetic, how can I get through security without being labelled as an ‘anomaly’ or facing delays?” you’re more likely to have a better experience. A friend of mine recently called up their local airport in New England to talk with the TSA staff in advance of a trip and, because of that, the staff were able to get practical guidance from a nonbinary person — both in terms of respecting the individual traveler and helping them follow TSA requirements.
I also like to dress comfortably (but also a bit formally), and to bring a companion if at all possible. Even when I’ve worn a waistcoat and jeans, I tend to be told, “We’re sorry, please come here for a pat-down, sir.” I do not tend to get as roughly handled in those instances, but having a companion nearby with the official ensures that everyone is respectful and professional.
Of course, a caveat here: I also have invisible disabilities, so a traveling companion is ideal in my case anyway.
Document everything you can.
This is a pain, I know.
But this is a variation on existing travel advice: Keep a photocopy or picture of your passport photo page or other government issued identification somewhere you can easily access at all times. This could be in a folder in your bag or on your phone. Same with name change or family court paperwork.
For electronic copies, while it is a good idea to store them on your phone, I would not store them on your device’s memory itself. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has spoken of issues with phones, cameras, and laptops being confiscated or pictures or files “disappearing” through security.
So, I recommend storing them in a service like Dropbox or Google Drive, in a private/locked folder, and keep an encrypted external USB key with you as well. Ideally, use two-factor authentication for services like Dropbox or Google Drive when you can.
Also ensure that you know your rights when it comes to documenting or filming officials. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU are both excellent resources for within the United States should you need them, and may also know where you can find resources for international travelers. If you need to, check with them!
Remember: You deserve dignity, and to enjoy yourself.
The process of travel can be tough. So try to take care of yourself as best you can — whether that is making sure you stay hydrated or taking a few moments to breathe deeply.
Self-care is important, and don’t avoid practicing it while on the road. Some other ways you can take care of yourself while traveling include:
Getting a piece of candy, a bottle of water or can of soda, or a snack to help regulate your blood sugar.
Try listening to music you love. I usually do this when I’m feeling particularly stressed out. I pick three of my favorite songs, and then return to the task(s) at hand.
Create a library of positive memories. This can be difficult while in the airplane or on a train, but try to remember the awe you might have felt when going on a plane or a train for the first time. Think about what you can do when you get to your destination; the sights you’d like to see or even just being able to relax in a bed. Also think about what you enjoyed the last time you traveled. If you are spiritually minded, see if there are any parks or congregations you might want to visit. Sometimes airports even have chapels or places of meditation set aside for personal prayer.
Remember: You are awesome. You deserve dignity, and to travel safely and enjoy your experience just as much as anyone else.
I look forward to seeing you on the road!