Traveling While Transgender in 2020
UPDATE: This article was refreshed in June, 2020 with new information on updated TSA regulations, US state-licensed, non-binary identities, and more. A new link to the Orbitz LGBTQ Welcoming Hotels hub page was also added in February, 2021.
Mark Twain once famously said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
By public acclaim, the evidence for this appears to be true, or at least it is so for those who have the wealth, privilege and social position to travel.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice” – Mark Twain
But what about those who are outside of the social mainstream, especially those whose gender identity might not match their original birth certificate designation or even the physical features of their face and/or body? For them, the enlightenment and joy of travel presents a host of difficult obstacles that most gender normative people have never considered.
As an American transgender woman myself who has traveled, both before and after transitioning, I’d like to share some of the experiences we face so that you, as a potential ally to our community, may both better understand and help to make our voyages as enjoyable as yours.
Transgender traveler concerns
Public travel today is a far more complicated experience than it was in the past. The needs for heightened security on public transportation, especially in the air and at sea, has led to very strict, invasive security measures that are an unpleasant annoyance for most folks, but can be profoundly humiliating to the trans community. We face such issues as:
1. TSA Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) body scans that reveal our bodies in which many of us have so much shame
2. Aggressive, invasive and intimate TSA pat-down searches
3. Going through TSA checks with body prosthetics
4. Traveling with prescription hormone medications (especially injection supplies)
5. Traveling before our ID has been updated for name and gender
6. Getting misgendered (sometimes intentionally) by airline and hotel staff or TSA officers
7. Being forced to sit for an extended period of time next to someone who is overtly transphobic
8. Public humiliation or overt outing by TSA officers, travel services staff or hotel front desk staff
9. International (or domestic) travel to destinations where transgender people are not socially or legally accepted in their identified gender, especially when the travel is required for work
It doesn’t begin and end at the airport, either. Even taking road trips by car can be a source of deep worry over issues such as:
1. Traveling to/through a place that is hostile to trans people (by legislation or culture, both inside the US and international)
2. Having to visit public rest stops, stores, restaurants, and gas stations in unfriendly areas on road trips
3. Facing confrontations for using the public restroom of the gender in which we identify while traveling
4. Visiting potentially unwelcoming rural areas vs. the anonymity of large urban areas
5. Going to public swimming pools, saunas or into public changing rooms
6. Being confronted with verbal abuse and, all too often, unthinkable physical violence by intolerant, local people
7. Traveling for a variety of transgender surgeries where, on the return trip, we will appear/be different than when we departed
For the trans community, all these issues and more are significant obstacles to be prepared for, dealt with, and overcome, one at a time, over and over. You simply cannot know how much mental and emotional energy it takes for trans people to get ourselves ready to leave our safe space and venture out into the unknown. It can be excruciatingly hard.
How to cope as a trans traveler
But trans people need not abandon the personally enriching experiences of travel in their lives. While the safe world is quite a bit smaller for us, there are still places we can go and things we can do to both protect ourselves and our civil rights as traveling citizens.
1. Know your rights!
Review the TSA Transgender Policies webpage and install the FlyRights app on your mobile device.
2. Consider applying for TSA PreCheck membership
The TSA PreCheck application process runs a thorough background check on all applicants. As a result, the level of trust TSA has in TSA PreCheck-identified passengers is greatly elevated, and reportedly this benefits the process of transgender passengers passing through airport security with less hassle due to lessened scrutiny at the security gate. There is a cost for this, however. For a 5-year membership, it’s $85. The Trusted Traveler program includes TSA PreCheck and other pre-screening programs that can be bundled together to help assist international travelers shorten their wait to see Customs officers.
3. Remain positive, gracious and respectful while working with TSA officers
Be so at all times in your interactions. Calmly answer all reasonable questions directly. Never shout or threaten a TSA officer. Jokes are highly discouraged as well. The goal is to get through the security screening process safely and quickly with minimal hassle, then be on your way. If necessary, calmly ask for a supervisor if the interactions with TSA officers become unreasonable.
4. Consider self-identifying to the TSA as transgender
You may consider privately self-identifying as trans to a TSA officer before going through their millimeter wave advanced imaging technology screening booth (they choose between separate, binary-gender image screening settings and “unexpected anomalies” may raise a red flag, resulting in a more thorough, body pat-down search)
5. Opt-out of body scanning
You can opt-out of the AIT body screening and ask instead for a pat-down search.
6. Carry a TSA Notification Card
Consider carrying a TSA Notification Card if you carry prescribed, injection medications or wear a prosthesis.
7. Ask for a pat-down in private
If you are selected for a pat-down search, you can ask for it to be done in a private screening area with a witness or companion of your choosing.
8. Ask for a same-gender officer as you identify for a pat-down
You can ask for a TSA officer of the same gender as your gender identity to perform the pat-down search.
9. Let TSA know if you are wearing prosthetics
You may wish to self-identify if you are wearing prosthetics prior to a screening or pat-down. If you are asked to either show a prosthetic or a body part, or lift, raise or remove any clothing, ask for a supervisor. Note that if the prosthetic alarms in the screening, the TSA requires that you conduct a self-pat-down followed by an explosives test of your hands. If those results are positive, a more thorough pat-down will be conducted, but still under the same rules as above.
10. Politely correct accidental misgenderings
Politely correct a person who initially misgendered you by mistake. If you are repeatedly misgendered or are shown disrespect, calmly ask for a supervisor.
11. Ask for a TSA Supervisor
If need be, calmly ask to speak to a TSA supervisor at any time.
12. Ask for a private luggage check screening
If your carry-on baggage is selected to be opened, you may ask for a private screening.
13. Bundle all prescription medications & supplies in one bag
If you are packing prescription medications, including hypodermic needles and hormones, inside your carry-on bag, TSA regulations require you put them all together in a separate bag, preferably in their original packaging with prescription labels.
14. Gender presentation is not relevant to your ability to travel
How you present, gender-wise, is not relevant to your ability to travel. The only thing that is relevant is matching your ID documents’ name and gender marker to your reservations. The TSA cannot reject you for your gender presentation.
15. Update your ID photo
If necessary, consider updating your government photo ID with a current photo if you haven’t had a legal name change.
16. Update your legal IDs if you have legally changed your name
If you have legally changed your name and/or gender designation, follow up by updating your driver’s license, passport, and TSA PreCheck card with new personal identity data. Note that many US states have now begun enabling their citizens to select alternative gender designations to the binary options of female and male, and more are planning to follow suit. Also, at the time of this post update, a bill has been brought before the US Congress proposing that the US State Department allow alternative gender markers on US passports.
17. Make travel reservations using your legal name
Make your flight reservations in the name based on the legal ID documents you will bring to the airport for your flight. They must match, as required per law.
18. Make travel reservations using the gender marker on the ID you’ll use
Like with your name, you’ll need to make your flight reservations using the gender marker based on the legal ID documents you will bring to the airport for your flight. They must match. Note that per the TSA, there are several forms of identification you can use. This includes your REAL ID, a secure, state-issued identification (in some cases known as an enhanced driver’s license or EDL). But as noted in an earlier question above, some US States offer alternative gender markers beyond the binary, while US passports are still (as of this post update) only offered in binary gender markers. In addition, some airlines also accept alternative gender markers. So here’s the key to making this complex system work:
- Domestic only travel. If you are flying within the US only, you can use the gender marker listed on your REAL ID to book your flight. Present your REAL ID at airport security for your ID. The new deadline date for getting a REAL ID is October 1, 2021, so if you don’t get your driver’s license upgraded to a REAL ID/EDL by that time or you don’t bring another approved form of ID with you to the airport, you will not be allowed to get through security!
- International travel. If you are going to cross any international border, even Canada or Mexico, on your trip, you will be required to use your passport instead of a REAL ID, and thus be required to book your flight using the gender marker on your passport. Even if you have a US connection in the same trip, it’s still part of the international flight trip, and the passport supersedes the REAL ID.
19. Consider carrying medical letter for HRT & gender
You may opt to carry a copy of your medical letter for prescription hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and gender designation.
20. Consider bringing a medical letter for other medical supplies
If you are bringing dilators or syringes in a carry-on, it may be helpful to bring a letter of medical necessity.
21. Consider carrying your name change court document
You may also consider carrying a copy of your name change court order document. You might also consider carrying your old ID just in case.
22. How to file a complaint for mistreatment
If need be, you can file a civil rights complaint with the TSA and/or DHS immediately after the incident or as soon as possible afterward.
23. Stay at known LGBTQIA-friendly hotels
Stay at hotels and resorts that are explicitly LGBTQ friendly. Orbitz has a huge number of them in our lodging inventory, one of the largest LGBTQ-Welcoming hotel inventories in the travel industry, and that list continues to grow weekly.
24. Travel to known safe destinations for LGBTQIA people
Consider traveling to known LGBTQIA-safe country destinations, or known LGBTQIA-safe cities in North America.
For additional details, check out Know Your Rights: Airport Security by the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Advice for service workers who interact with trans travelers
So much of the above puts the onus on trans people to be compliant with and aware of the regulatory rules and laws as well as standing up for our rights against discrimination. However, for transgender allies and just kind-hearted people who work in government jobs in TSA, Customs, and law enforcement, as well as workers in the travel and hospitality industries, there are things you can do as well to help make our travel experience be so much easier. This includes:
- Be discreet about bringing public attention to someone who may be transgender.
- Avoid using gendered salutations, such as “sir”, “ma’am”, “Mr.”, “Ms.”, “gentleman” and “lady”, in your speech, especially if there is any possibility of perceived ambiguity in the person’s gender expression.
- Discreetly ask the traveler how they want to be identified (including their personal pronouns, name, salutations, etc.).
- Never ask a transgender person deeply personal questions about surgery, genitalia, medications, their “real” name, or anything else not relevant to their travel.
- For TSA: Proactively provide options to the traveler on who can do a pat-down search if one is needed.
- Treat transgender people with the same respect and dignity as you would any other person.
Ultimately, transgender travelers are just travelers. We travel because we have to be somewhere else and have to use public transportation facilities and services to get there. Along the way, we may have to visit the bathroom. This is no different than anyone else. If you show us the same respect and dignity that you expect from us, everything will be so much easier for everyone involved.
Travel can be such a positive, even life-changing, experience. In a perfect world, transgender travelers, like everyone else, would share another one of Mark Twain’s musings resulting from the amazing experience of travel: “There is no unhappiness like the misery of sighting land (and work) again after a cheerful, careless voyage.”