Not surprisingly, I follow many LGBT news sites on social media; Lambda Legal, Equality NC, and National Center for Transgender Equality to name a few. The stories I read continue to open my eyes to the injustices faced by the transgender community. As Heather begins the second year of her transition, I have also witnessed first-hand the discrimination that transgender people face.
Heather’s new passport arrived the week after Labor Day. It was the final document she needed to have updated with her correct gender and new legal name. A few days after the new passport came, the legal documents she submitted with her passport application arrived. I breathed a huge sigh of relief after receiving both envelopes. Finally, I thought to myself, she can move forward without the reminder of her deadname. The new passport is valid for ten years. I was excited to know she could now travel freely!
Initially, we felt no urgency to update her passport because we had no plans for overseas travel. With Heather heading off to college, I thought perhaps she could apply for a new passport over holiday break, or even next summer. The week before Heather headed off to school, we were speaking with an LGBT advocate. We were discussing the driver’s license fiasco and I made the comment, “I think the only thing we have left to update is Heather’s passport.” The advocate urgently responded, “Do it right away. Like, as soon as you possibly can. Don’t wait.” Given the current political arena, the person explained, it is only a matter of time before passport requirements are changed for transgender people.
We went home and, fortunately, found an appointment for Heather at the passport office two days later. Still feeling traumatized by the incident at the DMV, I asked my husband to accompany her to the appointment. We followed the instructions online to ensure she had all the necessary forms, legal documents, photos, and correct forms of payment. Unlike our trip to the DMV, they were in and out of the passport office, without any issues, in 10 minutes. My experience with the DMV has caused me to be suspicious of all government offices. In the back of my mind, I wondered if Heather would receive the new passport or if, instead, she would receive the runaround from the State Department via U.S. Mail.
I awoke this past Wednesday morning to news the State Department had altered the requirements for gender marker changes on U.S. passports. I was immediately grateful that despite the enormous list of things Heather had to do before leaving for college, she made it to the passport office to update her gender and legal name. By the end of the day, it was reported the State Department changed the wording on their website, but, in fact, did not change the actual requirements for gender changes on U.S. Passports. The new wording is confusing and is being viewed by the transgender community as an effort by the State Department to deter transgender people from seeking new passports.
Unless you know a transgender person, you have no idea of the indignities they face on a regular basis. I had this ignorant belief that once Heather’s personal identification matched her gender identity, she would be safe. Anticipating this gave me a measure of comfort. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined what would transpire during her first airport visit, post transition, with her new identification. On our trip to Illinois in July, Heather was patted down by TSA agents on the way to Illinois and on the way back to North Carolina. Additionally, her carry-on bag was swabbed for explosives.
For those of you unfamiliar with the TSA process, before you walk up to the scanner, the TSA agent presses a button. One button is for female, the other for male. If your physical presentation (translate: genital area) doesn’t match the button pressed, your crotch lights up on the screen as though you are carrying a bomb between your legs. Then, 3-4 TSA agents surround you like a criminal and ask if you want to be searched in public, or in a private room. As this is occurring, everyone behind you in the security line is stopped. Everyone in front of you retrieving their personal belongings can see the screen lit up like a Christmas tree around your crotch. The transgender person is outed to everyone who is watching the scene unfold. I have learned the United States is one of a handful of countries to have this outdated screening process. In most countries, the devices scan a human body, without regard to gender identity, to search for metal objects and explosives.
Because I was traveling with Heather, I instructed her to tell the TSA agents to search her in public. I know she didn’t want this. My intent was not to embarrass her. Sadly, it was a teachable moment. She needed to understand if she were traveling by herself, she must never put herself in a position where she was alone, in a room, with complete strangers. I remained with her the entire time. Upon returning home, she informed me she would not fly again, ever. One of the many dreams I have for my daughters is for them to study abroad for a semester during college. As her Mom, I am heartbroken. My fear of her life experiences being limited was served to me on a silver platter by the TSA agents at Charlotte Douglas & O’Hare International airport. Unless she can reach a destination by car, she is no longer interested in visiting. My husband & I have encouraged her to apply for TSA Precheck. We have no idea if she will be approved or not.
I think about the nearly one million transgender people in our country. How many of them travel for work? How many of them fly? How many of them endure this mistreatment on a regular basis? For people who suffer body dysphoria, having other people touch your body is not a mere inconvenience; it causes anxiety, stress, and depression which can result in self-harm or even thoughts of suicide.
Can I ask a favor of you? Please follow one of the LGBT news sites I mentioned; all three are on Facebook. Most states have their own equality organization. For example, Equality IL has a Facebook page; check for one in the state you live in. I’m not asking you to change your belief system. I’m asking you to become more aware of the discrimination that exists against the LGBT community.
Also, with the November primary right around the corner, don’t be afraid to ask politicians, regardless of party affiliation, what they are doing to help the LGBT community. Treating people with dignity and respect is a human rights issue, not a divisive party issue. Transgender people are human beings. We must demand that all human beings be treated with dignity and respect.
Lastly, if you are traveling and believe you are witnessing a transgender person being harassed by TSA agents, ask the person if they would like a witness. I shudder when I recall how off guard we were by the entire interaction that occurred in the security line at the airport. Others who have recently transitioned, or just had their identification updated, may be caught off guard as well. TSA requirements state that a person being searched can bring a witness with for private screenings. If you have time and realize the person is traveling alone, let them know you are an ally, and stay with them. They will thank you, and, I promise, so will their Mom.