In 2010 the Obama administration changed the rules to make it easier for trans people to change the gender marker on their passports. I finally got around to changing mine in 2012 (I was traveling and moving around so much that I just didn't have the time to send it out and wait for it to come back). Last month they finally changed the rules for the Social Security Administration, and today I finally got it done. But, before all these great rule changes came through, I lived and traveled for nine years, as a woman with an 'M' on her passport. In honor of finally wrapping all this shit up, I thought I'd share some of my more interesting travel stories.
Honestly, most of the time people don't look at the gender marker, there's no real need to. Usually they just look at the name, the picture and the birthday, but nine years is a long time—enough time to run into the people who do happen to look. Those experiences range from kind of funny, to kind of shitty, to kind of scary.
Kind of Funny
Very early in my transition, before my name change came through, I was living full time as a woman but still had to use my old ID. The picture on my license was androgynous but my name was decidedly not. At the time I was passing okay a lot of the time, but you could kind of still tell. Store clerks would look at my ID, look back at me, and then look at my ID, again, then back at me with a look of dawning realization. Then, I would give them kind of a shoulder shrug that said: hey, it is what it is. At a certain point, that changed.
I was heading home from visiting my parents over the holidays, it was my first time traveling as a female and I think it was going to be the first time my parents had seen me since transition. I went through check-in no problem, which was a relief, because I was already really nervous. I got through the first check point fine but at the second check point, (did I mention that this was 2004 when TSA was still fairly new and you had to show your ID 7,000 times before getting on a plane?) the guy looks at my ID then looks at me and says: "why the hell did your parents name you Jonathan*?" He then proceeds to take my ID and shows it to everyone else working the metal detecor saying: "Hey look! this girl's name is Jonathan, isn't that weird?"
I was dying inside, but somehow on the spot I managed to say, "hey, it's a family name and my parents really wanted to pass it on," with enough fake confidence to get by.
He said, "Ha, that's pretty funny, you should probably change that."
I said, "I probably will."
Early on, I decided that I would always just pretend that everything was perfectly normal. Acting nervous or like something unusual is going on, gives people a chance to question the situation and it opens the door for them to hassle you. Acting like nothing is wrong, makes people question themselves and then it becomes very awkward to broach the subject.
One time after going through the usual questions at customs, the border agent looks up at me and says: "you know there's a mistake on your passport, right?"
"Oh yeah, dude, it kind of sucks."
"Is there anything you can do about it? Will they fix it for you."
"No, unfortunately, there's nothing I can do."
"Well, that's a bummer. Have a nice day."
"You too, sir."
Right here, I want to take a second to acknowledge that I have a lot of privilege in this area. I don't want to give the impression that I haven't had very real struggles in my life, but no matter how poor I've been or how shitty things have been going to for me, or how crazy the neighborhood I grew up in was, I still get treated like a nice white girl. I pass reasonably well, I'm educated and it is literally my job to be professionally charming. I'm often able to get by in a way that other trans women don't have access to. I've gotten through a lot of shitty situations with a wink and a smile and I trade shamelessly on the fact that most people expect trans women to either look like lumberjacks in dresses or be made up like drag queens.
There's a time to fight the good fight and a time to live.
Kind of Shitty
One time my boyfriend and I attempted to cross the border into Canada at 3 am and failed. When crossing the border always follow the K.I.S.S principle: Keep It Simple Stupid. If your story is complicated, find the simplest version possible and go with that.
We had been driving 20 hours straight with very little rest, and we got the one dude who was bored and proud of his job. We had a complicated story, one of us was leaving the country at a different place and time than the other and we had nothing to show how much money we had available to us for the time we were going to be in Canada. I told the truth. We were stopped. We were questioned thoroughly and I was asked for my driver's license (which I had been able to change that summer) in addition to my passport:
"Why does this one say male and this one say female?"
"Well sir, at this time the state recognizes me as female but the federal government does not."
My charm did not save us that time. We were sent back across the border. The next day, we got the documents we needed and passed with no problem, but now I have to go in for further questioning every time I cross into Canada. I don't think we were specifically sent back because I'm trans but I think it definitely contributed to the border agent not buying our story.
Honestly, the middle of the night is a crapshoot for crossing the border in a car. Sometimes the guards are so bored they can't be bothered to question you and sometimes they're so bored they want to question you as much as possible so that they'll have something to do.
A couple of years ago, I was moving from the West (mountains, not the Coast) to the East coast. My best friend and I decided to make it a road trip, so we cut through Canada to see some friends. We got in no problem, but we were stopped on the way back.
The car was packed, literally, completely stuffed and the border guards were bored. Every single fucking thing was removed, pawed through and then put back. It took over an hour and a half. While they were searching the car we were thoroughly questioned by the border agent. Where were we from? Who did we know on the east coast. How did we know each other? Why were we going where we were going? Where did we grow up? What kinds of places did we go to in our hometowns? I was again asked for my driver's license.
When my friend went to the bathroom, the guy leaned over and asked about the gender maker. I gave my standard state and federal response and thought that was the end of it, but as we were leaving he said, "hey, so were you always Jayne?"
At that point I had been keeping up witty banter for over an hour and a half, and I was done with charm. I looked him straight in the eye and said, flatly, "No."
The meanest experience I ever had was Australia. I had been traveling for almost 30 hours at that point. I was terrified that something would go wrong with my visa application and I would be sent back. There was no charm left in me. I was nervous and a little confused with travel delirium, but the customs agent had no time for any of that. She looked at my visa application (it had galled me to write MALE on the form, but there was no getting around it) looked at my passport, looked at me and wrote MALE in huge letters on my processing papers. It wasn't as inconvenient as some of the other experiences, but I'll never forget the way she looked at me—as though I was a piece of shit.
Nothing actually happens in this story, but it was definitely the scariest experience I ever had at customs. It was the time where the most was on the line. If something had happened to me in the US, Canada, or Europe, yeah, it could have been shitty and humiliating, but I do have a certain amounts of rights. There are organizations that could fight for me if things got really bad, but I was on my way to the UAE.
Dubai is not Iran or Saudi Arabia. The people are friendly. It's cosmopolitan and it's modern on the verge of being futuristic and for the most part the people are very free and the government is very welcoming toward foreign business travelers—however, it's still a country where you can be arrested for getting raped and homosexuality is illegal (they are not having the same discussions we are about the differences between sexual orientation and gender identity).
No one made me take the job and I was ready to own whatever trouble I found myself in—but it was a good contract and it changed the course of my career, so I took the risk, but I was never so fucking terrified crossing a border in my life. For probably the first time ever, I made no attempt to be friendly or polite to the guy at passport control. I kept my eyes down, handed him my passport and tried not to die of a heart attack.
Even though I was able to skate through the last decade without any major incidents, I can't tell you how draining it was to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen to when I went through a security checkpoint or passport control, having to play the confident, inoffensive trans woman and hoping that that worked.
*name changed for obvs reasons. Although, earlier today, I had to write out my complete former name for the first time in many many years. It was bizarre.