International Travel as a Gender Non-Conforming Person is Tricky

Traveling as a GNC person is challenging, but there are a few bright spots

airport security check
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It’s Pride Month! We’re kicking off this joyous, meaningful month with a collection of features completely dedicated to LGBTQ+ travelers. Follow along on a gay writer’s adventures at Pride around the world; read about a bisexual woman’s journey to The Gambia to visit her staunchly religious family; and hear from a non-gender-conforming traveler about unexpected challenges and triumphs on the road. Then, find inspiration for your future trips with our guides to the best LGBTQ+ hidden gem attractions in every state, amazing national park sites with LGBTQ+ history, and actor Jonathan Bennett’s new travel venture. However you make your way through the features, we’re glad you’re here with us to celebrate the beauty and importance of inclusivity and representation within the travel space and beyond.

As a gender non-conforming person who's still undergoing their transition and gender affirmation process, I expect nothing less than a bumpy road ahead. And traveling as an LGBTQ+ person in the Global South can be especially tricky.

I’m based in Cape Town, South Africa, known as the LGBTQ+ hub of the African continent. South Africa remains the only country on the African continent where discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community is constitutionally forbidden. Whenever I think about visiting destinations that neighbor my country, I carefully consider the laws, how my gender presentation will be responded to at the airport and within the country, and whether I need community support as a backup. I'll research holiday packages and flight deals within Africa and dramatically narrow down my options in accordance with my nervousness.

While there are no laws that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in South Africa, the environment remains challenging to navigate as socio-economic factors contribute towards safety. For example, higher-income suburbs within Cape Town are known to be friendlier, while LGBTQ+ violence often goes unrecorded in lower-income areas. Growing up in the "safest country" for LGBTQ+ people in Africa has heightened my awareness of the possible dangers in countries with LGBTQ+ prohibition laws and attitudes. Dream holiday destinations like Morocco and Nigeria remain on my bucket list but require careful planning and community support to execute safely.

But as public awareness of LGBTQ issues and laws develops over time, more people and companies within the travel industry are catering to LGBTQ+ people, realizing how the industry had previously excluded LGBTQ+ people. While traveling as a non-binary person comes with a unique set of challenges, there are a few bright spots. From airlines changing their announcements to gender-neutral phrasing to a growing LGBTQ+ tourism industry, it’s both a hopeful (albeit nerve-wracking) time to travel as an LGBTQ+ person.

Changes Made to Japan Airlines' Announcements

Among the metropolitan cities in Asia—a continent where there's growing acceptance of LGBTQ+ people—airlines and companies are taking an active step towards being more inclusive of diverse travelers. For example, on Oct. 1, 2020, Japan Airlines changed its announcements from "ladies and gentlemen" to a gender-neutral greeting. Mark Morimoto, a Japan Airlines spokesman, explained that phrases such as "all passengers" and "everyone" would be used to replace gender-specific terms. 

While traveling, I often wonder how many, if anyone, experiences the airport as such a gender barrier. While the slight adjustment to the gender pronouns in announcements may seem insignificant, this advancement is encouraging. I can only imagine the relief experienced by passengers like myself. In an email to the New York Times in 2020, a Japan Airlines spokesperson explained that the adjustment to gender-neutral language was implemented to “treat everyone, including all customers, with respect.” The new policy was targeted toward non-Japanese travelers, with in-airport announcements remaining unchanged since they had never included gender pronouns by custom. Although companies like Japan Airlines have made advancements toward LGBTQ+ inclusion, Japanese lawmakers remain conservative as same-sex marriage is not legally recognized to this day.

Challenges Trans Travelers Face at Airport Security

Though I was relieved upon first hearing this small step towards gender inclusion by an airline, moments later, I flashed back to all my uncomfortable gendered experiences while traveling. At airports, I sometimes need to bargain with myself to accept being misgendered so I can stand in one gender-specific security line. I question how I’m being perceived, with my appearance differing over the years as I undergo my transition. When I traveled to New York three years ago, I understood that I was being perceived as androgynous and decided to go through the "women's" security line to avoid further security aggression. When I landed at JFK, I used the "men’s" bathroom without a second glance from other travelers. As I take more steps towards life-affirming processes, I’m bound to run into more challenges as people's perception of my gender changes and is misaligned with the technology’s understanding of gender. 

I’ve heard horror stories from trans friends who’ve been flagged down by security for extra checks since most airports and personnel are trained and designed for cisgender and binary people. Trans people who are post-op or use prosthetics can have a significantly challenging time getting through security as Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) body scans and pat-down searches can present opportunities for dysphoria, discrimination, and gendered microaggressions.

Several gender rights organizations, such as the National Center for Transgender Equality, have started awareness campaigns and produced resources and tips for LGBTQ+ travelers. The U.S.-based organization offers a resource guide with practical advice on what to expect during traveling as a trans person and shares direct contacts to report discrimination of any kind. As part of the guidelines, the organization suggests, “We encourage travelers to file complaints with TSA and DHS in cases where body scanner alarms in the groin or chest areas are related to being transgender and result in additional screening.”

The NCTE adds that trans passengers at U.S. airports, who have the financial capacity to do so, should consider signing up for TSA PreCheck, where participants often go through a metal detector instead of a body scanner. However, while TSA offers a pre-check option for travelers in the U.S., not all airports worldwide offer this.

How Thailand Is Accepting of LGBTQ+ Travelers

In 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I had wanted to go on a trip, but I didn't know where. Mid-Google search, I called a friend from high school for suggestions. He had heard that Thailand is one of the friendliest destinations and asked me if I had considered traveling there. I'd heard of LGBTQ+ acceptance in parts of Asia before and began to consider it as a potential destination.

While I searched for reasonable packages in Asia, I discovered that Thailand is not only extremely accepting of LGBTQ+ people, LGBTQ+ travel is also normalized within the tourism industry. The Tourism Authority of Thailand’s official website includes various destinations, hotels, events, and LGBTQ+ positive stories based in Thailand. Expanding on inspiration from every region of the county, the Tourism Authority of Thailand openly states, "In Thailand, we believe that diversity is amazing. As the most LGBTQ+ welcoming country in Asia, we’re proud that the LGBTQ+ community—and all people—no matter how they identify; and whom they love; feel free when traveling in Thailand on vacation or holiday.”

There are even resorts in Thailand that cater to LGBTQ+ travelers. I stumbled across one called Alpha Gay Resort in Koh Samui, located on the pristine Chaweng beach. On the resort's official website, they explain that they are the “first-ever on Samui Island exclusive for adult gay men only.” While I appreciate seeing members of the diverse LGBTQ+ community represented, I decided against booking a stay there as they did not mention being open to non-binary travelers. Instead, I settled for a resort in the general Koh Samui area. It was not LGBTQ+-specific, but I felt hopeful due to the general attitude of acceptance in the area. I put my savings aside and bookmarked my pages online, hoping to make bookings before flight prices changed—and then COVID-19 happened.

Distraught at the state of the pandemic, I decided to put a pause on my travel plans. As South Africa enters the third wave of the pandemic and vaccine access is only beginning to grow, it seems that it's for the best—I couldn't imagine going through airport transphobia and COVID anxiety on the same trip. In the meantime, I have continued saving and searching for safe destinations, all while undergoing my transition. I look forward to seeing what options open up in the international tourism industry for trans travelers.