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Traveling While Queer

When preparing for a trip, most people are worried about flight delays or forgetting to pack something—but when the traveler-to-be is queer, there’s a whole host of worries to be had on top of the usual ones.

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We have to take into consideration things like what bathrooms will be safe to use, if TSA personnel will harass us, if it’s legal to be queer where we’re headed, if it’s safe to be queer around the people we’re traveling with, and so much more.

And what’s safe for one queer person might not be safe for another—a white, cisgendered, gay man might be totally fine, but that same place could be extremely dangerous for a black trans woman.

Additionally, some queer folk can utilize the privilege of “straight-passing”—the ability to visually hide one’s queerness and not be perceived as queer—where others can’t. The varying levels of privilege within the queer community are something most non-queer folk don’t even realize exist, much less how they factor into travel.

Unfortunately, being Queer is inherently political, and those politics—legal or social—are constantly changing. Places that were once relatively safe might not be anymore, or places that were once a death sentence could become safer. It’s a constant matter of paying attention to how the politics shift on the local and national levels.

All in all, queer folk have many things to pay attention to when preparing for and while traveling, both abroad and domestically. Concerns about getting through TSA lines safely; worries about documents’ gender markers not matching your presentation; fears of being hate-crimed, harassed, assaulted . . . the list goes on.

It’s all the worries a queer person frequently has where they live, only the anxiety is often much worse when traveling because the very nature of travel makes everything higher-risk.

One student, a trans woman (she/her), shared in an interview about the struggles she had getting through TSA while traveling internationally with her sister. The woman got pulled aside and individually inspected each time because she was openly queer and it was early on in her physical transition. This woman was, as part of her gender-affirming presentation, wearing breast forms to help with her outward presentation.

The first time she went through TSA, her chest prostheses were flagged, and the officer was very kind. “She lightly brushed my chest prostheses through my shirt with the back of her hand, and sent me on my way!” the woman shared.

But it was not all smooth sailing. “The second time [I was flagged],” she said, “the officer was not happy, and demanded, loudly, that I report what had under my shirt. I had to tell her twice, loudly, in front of other passengers and officers, before she understood. Then she groped my chest—thoroughly—before she let me go. It was humiliating!”

Transportation security checks are far from the only worry when traveling. Another queer student (he/they) went on a study abroad trip and talked about how the travel itself was fine, and he found that the places they went were rather accepting, and there were no issues with them being gendered correctly. But there were other issues on that trip—namely, who he was traveling with.

“It was more difficult traveling with my American group. I had to worry a lot about how I was being perceived by them and my professor and felt lonely and out of place a lot of the time,” he said. “A lot of my study abroad group were uncomfortable with me and avoided me, so I actually got ditched a lot and ended up often doing things on my own whenever we had free time in the cities. Living with a group 24/7 meant I got frequent microaggressions and had to compartmentalize myself a lot.”

Additionally, they shared that “There was also the aspect of traveling while abroad with an unsupportive group [in] that I was away from my queer community and support networks. It kind of shattered my self confidence and ever since I am much more reserved about my authentic, queer self. ”

Even when traveling domestically instead of abroad, there are important considerations. As someone who has traveled across the continental US many times, both in groups and solo, I (they/them) have figured out that oftentimes the safest way to travel comes at the expense of my personal comfort.

When I drive myself across the country, for instance, I do my best to look like a straight girl with short hair—I wear clothes that are inconspicuous and easy to move in, and I carry self-defense items such as a taser.

Even with my relatively decent straight-passing-as-needed privilege, I am well aware that being a genderqueer, early-20s, woman-perceived person means I am in a demographic that is very high risk for things such as assault.

And this is especially true when I travel alone, which is more often than not. Knowing all of the risks associated with just existing as myself affects where and how often I make stops, how long those stops last, and if I take side trips or just stay the course and drive straight to my intended final destination.

Now, these concerns are not going to stop queer folk from traveling. Many of us enjoy it just as much as non-queer people, as we have every right to. But what these concerns do mean is that we often have to take extra precautions and make additional plans to try and keep ourselves safe in a world that is consistently coming for our throats.

It means finding safe places to use the bathroom, or finding safe places to stop and eat on a road trip. It means sometimes having to essentially re-closet ourselves long enough to get to a safe place again, or preparing for potential worst-case scenarios. It means weighing the potential of safety-in-numbers against the potential of those particular numbers being unsafe for us to travel with, especially considering potentially vulnerable situations like sleeping arrangements.

So when queer folk pack for a trip, we prepare not just for the excitement ahead, but also for how we can best keep safe in a world that often doesn’t like us. But keep existing and traveling we will—regardless of the obstacles—because the world is just as much ours to explore and enjoy.

Not every trip queer folk take will have the same levels of danger or need for preparation, but there are always a few safety precautions to keep in mind as we travel:

  • Research the laws around queerness where you’re traveling—bathroom laws, anti-drag policies, whether it’s legal to be affectionate with a partner, etc.—but also, research what your rights are as a queer person in those places. Look into laws and policies that protect your rights and what measures can be taken if those rights are infringed upon. 
  • Make sure all your travel and identification documents are in order: there are those at the travel checkpoints who will use any excuse to pick you out of the crowd. 
  • Try to pack clothes that make you feel comfortable with your presentation, but make sure to have some that will help you blend in more if needed. 
  • Make sure that any medications (such as HRT) are something you can take with you and use safely. Ensure prescriptions are up to date, and check how the medications will interact with local laws, especially for controlled substances. 
  • Finally, try to travel with safe people. If you’re alone or with less safe or unsafe people, make sure you take extra precautions, such as having someone safe back home tracking your location and giving them updates as you travel. With school-related travel including a study abroad or an internship, know who to contact and communicate with if things become unsafe with the group.