Vancouver
4 min

Flying while butch

I will not allow them to control me

I travel a lot. So in the summer of 2009, when the US Transportation Security Administration enacted its new requirements for passenger identification, a giant lump of panic got caught in my throat, and my mouth went dry.

In order to fly into, out of, through or over the US, your name, age, birth date and gender had to match your person and your passport exactly, or you could be denied or delayed airline boarding, denied or delayed entry into and exit from the US, or forced to undergo additional (secondary) screening.

Whether or not my physical gender matched that of the capital F on my passport was, of course, subject to scrutiny and confirmation by each and every individual border guard, TSA employee and airline personnel during any of the check-in, security, luggage and boarding operations.

Fucking great, I thought. Awesome. Crossing the border into the US has always involved the threat of physical search and questioning, but now all those uniforms had a big new excuse and a healthy reminder that interrogating, ascertaining and knowing my gender was now a matter of national security.

Every flight I took now included a US-sized portion of stress and gender panic for me, on top of the good old-fashioned inconvenience and exhaustion we all now expect from air travel.

Since then I have had my gender questioned or at least eyebrowed at least five times by mostly airline personnel while checking in, and one strip search (which Homeland Security assured me was random).

Then in November 2010 it got so much worse.

The use of full-body scanners and new and even more invasive (now with 100 percent more intrusion and intimidation) pat-down procedures were implemented. Since then I have been backscatter x-rayed twice (once in the US and once in Vancouver) and got the new and improved pat-down once.

If I wasn’t such a stubborn road dog with an almost belligerent love of going where I want no matter what, in love with more than 100 foreign cities, I would simply swear off air travel right now. But I refuse. I will not allow them to control me. Especially not by the use of fear and state-enforced gender conformity.

I am not going to get into a long-winded debate about terrorism and security and who gets profiled by whom and for what; there are plenty of articles on these topics. I am not even going to tell you where you can write to complain to your government representative or sign a petition or fill out a feedback form, although I think we should all be doing all of these things.

I am just going to offer up a few strategies, and encourage anyone who has other tricks to add to this list to share them, so we can all help each other travel safely and with as little trauma and inconvenience as possible.

Rule number one is pack your unattached dick or your breasts, of all sorts. And by pack I mean in your suitcase, not on your person.

If at all possible, put them in your checked bag. This does not mean that some creepy bastard isn’t going to manhandle them, but it does lessen the chances that you’ll be standing in front of them when it happens.

I know this is fucked up, and for many of us it can be extremely uncomfortable to appear in public missing a part of our selves, but I think for me this is safer.

I made the mistake of wearing a small, soft packer in my underwear last week. This has never been a problem before now. But I was full-body scanned and it showed up, apparently in a viewing room somewhere nearby. Then I was subjected to a genital pat-down. I managed to convince her that it was the wad of $20s I had from selling books in my front left pocket (I dress left), and she radioed back that the “object had been identified” and let me go, but my hands did not stop shaking for a couple of hours.

Checked baggage in the US sucks because they ding you $25 per bag, there and back, but the alternatives seem more costly, to me.

I heard a story about a woman having to remove her prosthetic breast and show it to the agent. She is now suing the TSA. Let us hope this costs them.

Rule number two is make sure you have all your documents ready, in good condition and updated.

According to its website, Air Canada is “legally required to compare a customer’s full face against the photograph shown on any government-issued identification — which must also include the name, date of birth and gender. Boarding will be denied if the customer does not resemble the photograph on the government-issued photo identification.”

This means if you have grown out your hair, got a nose job, aged five years or grown a beard, you will have a better time if your picture reflects this. The time I was strip-searched was also the time I entered the US with a passport that was about to expire in a month. This is why I was flagged in the first place. The physical search may never have happened had I been travelling with my now brand-spanking-new passport.

Rule number three, for me, is always stay as calm as you can. No matter what they say or do.

It is scary just how fast the long and brutal arm of the law can come down upon you if you even so much as raise your voice in an airport.

For me this means making sure I have eaten and that I arrive at the airport very early, so that if I am pulled aside I can concentrate on just being nervous about clearing security, and not add missing my flight to my worries.

These are a couple of things I do to make things go a little more my way. Maybe one of the pending lawsuits will pay off and the TSA will back down. Maybe world peace will come around and we will all be able to relax and travel without worries. Maybe the world will learn to love us non gender-conformists for the beautiful, brave and revolutionary beings we truly are.

Until then, let’s take care of each other.