Skip to main content

'I still kind of panic a bit': What transgender travelers want other travelers to know

Show Caption

Transgender Awareness Week comes around once a year, but all year round, transgender travelers remain all too aware of the challenges of #travelingwhiletrans.

Roughly 1.4 million U.S. adults identify as transgender, according to the latest numbers from the Williams Institute at UCLA's School of Law. 

While the U.S. recently issued its first gender X passport, many transgender Americans still don't have identification that reflects their identities, some still face invasive or humiliating screenings at airports, and others are misgendered, harassed or worse.

USA TODAY spoke with Kayley Whalen and Ben Haseen, who have both shared some of their experiences on social media, about what they wish other travelers would know.

Whalen describes herself as a transgender advocate, autistic advocate and YouTuber. Haseen describes himself as an openly visible South Asian transgender man and med student. Their responses have been edited for length. 

►'The world is yours, too': 'Real Queer America' author Samantha Allen has a message for LGBTQ travelers

►Words matter: LGBTQ definitions every good ally should know

What have your travel experiences been like?

Whalen: First of all, I understand there are a lot of reasons why a lot of transgender people are afraid to travel. That's why I've made videos and tips about it on YouTube. Right now I'm in Guatemala to learn more about my family history ... but I was afraid to travel for years ... because I didn't have ID documents, (a) passport that matched my gender, that matched who I am as a transgender woman.

I think it's really important for trans people to encourage other trans people to travel and kind of be a supportive community because I think there's a lot of value in traveling the world and learning about other cultures.

When you travel, you realize trans people always existed. ... There (are) very thriving trans communities with a long, rich history in many of the places I've traveled to, including the Philippines and Thailand. And I've really enjoyed getting to know them.

What's it like connecting with other transgender people when you travel?

Whalen: It's been fun. It's inspired me to learn Thai, Vietnamese and Spanish, which I'm working on. But for me, the most valuable thing about meeting trans people in other countries is learning that the gender system we live under in the United States is very artificial, very constructed. Every culture I've traveled in understands gender differently.

►This is America: Gender expression in a socially distanced world

Haseen: Whenever I make plans to go to a new city, I always search for other trans and queer (folks) who are living in that city. I generally get a lot of valuable advice on which places are safe and where I can meet other queer people. Meeting with other trans (folks) really makes traveling more magical because I can quickly make friends and be completely myself in a completely new setting. I don't have to worry about hiding who I am.

What are some positive experiences you’ve had traveling?

Whalen: I think it's really interesting how other cultures let you kind of self-identify and use the pronouns that work for you and don't really judge you in a way I think a lot of Americans are like, "Whoa, pronouns. You're being so politically correct."

I think the other thing that was really cool was just exploring the really vibrant ways that trans people make communities in other countries, whether it's through cabaret shows in Thailand or pageants (elsewhere) in Southeast Asia. I got to do the Miss International Queen pageant (as Miss USA), and it really changed my perspective of beauty pageants as a more kind of radical, activist experience that I never expected.

What are some challenges you've faced traveling?

Whalen: I still kind of panic a bit sometimes in airports. I'm lucky my gender identification matches. And to be honest, I don't like this word too much, but I'm generally able to pass. But I have past triggering experiences of being screened and mistreated. But for the most part, I have been navigating and meeting lots of trans folks and an awesome community.

Haseen: Not only am I trans, but I am also a South Asian Muslim transgender man, so I face a lot of intersections of bias when it comes to traveling. Airports have never really been a safe space for me because of TSA (Transportation Security Administration) policies that can make the security check an anxious process.

As a trans man, I always deal with the uncomfortable experience of being patted down and wondering if the TSA agent has figured out that I am trans and whether there would be repercussions if they were to figure it out, especially if I am in another country where being caught ... can be very dangerous.

►Come explore with us: Sign up for USA TODAY's Travel newsletter

I still haven’t changed my gender marker on my passport, so I always must be discrete when I present it to security and hope that they don't notice the big "F" in my sex category heading. So far no one has ever said anything, but it's a fear that's always in the back of my mind.  

I notice, compared to the rest of my friends who go through the security check-in, that I often get more scrutiny when my bags are being checked. I sometimes wonder if it is because of my dark brown skin or (because) I have a beard. One time a woman who was in the line in front of me was joking with an agent that they wouldn't find a bomb in her bags, and I remember thinking how the situation would be completely different if I said anything of that sort of joke in an airport.

How important is it to have safe spaces while traveling?

Haseen: Whenever I travel, I usually take a companion with me. It's to make sure that I am safe and that my companion can advocate for me in case security personnel made it hard for me to stand up for myself if I am being mistreated. Even when I don't travel with a companion, my dad always watches the security line to make sure that I go past the detectors before going back home when he drops me off. It's been hard to travel independently because I always have to factor in discomfort, how to navigate around it.

What kind of tips would you give newly transitioning transgender travelers?

Whalen: The National Center for Transgender Equality has a Know Your Rights guide for traveling well trans, which I highly recommend ...There's a LGBTQ (Travel) Safety survival guide by Man About World as well. (Whalen also shares tips on YouTube.)

Do your research beforehand. It's going to make your experience better in another country if you know about the history and at least the current political situation about LGBT rights.

One of the most rewarding and positive things I've done before I travel is I will contact LGBT transgender organizations in the countries before I even arrive. For example, the Asia Pacific Transgender Network has helped me contact trans organizations all across the Asia Pacific region ... They are an amazing resource.

There are horror stories about trans people getting really badly harassed, and we need to fix that as activists, but by and large, don't be scared by those horror stories. Go in knowing your rights

Haseen: My biggest advice is to never let anything stop you from living your true self. It might mean sacrificing certain places you have wanted to travel to, but many trans people in the world don't even have the privilege to be themselves. It is our duty to be visible and to fight for the rights of those who cannot.

Always do your research about where you want to go, build a network of trusted colleagues you can be yourself with, keep loved ones informed about where you are periodically. Know the laws about where you are going and how to protect yourself ... It is better to be prepared for anything and (know) how to get legal help when you need it.

►‘Go past Pride’: Trans activists want the Biden administration to address ‘epidemic’ of violence

What would you want other transgender travelers to know?

Whalen: Respect the local culture. Sometimes I've read or seen really indignant LGBT travelers that are like ... "I'm just treated so badly. They're a horrible country. They're a horrible culture."

Going on YouTube or whatever platform and saying, "I hate X country because X country did this to me" is often very racist, colonialist and hurts LGBT activism in that country by portraying them in a negative light when there are activists actively trying to change that culture for the better. If you're upset about being mistreated, talk with local activists and see what you can do to support (them).

►Not a 'two-sides issue': Transgender people exist. Why is there a debate over whether they should have rights?

Haseen: There will always be trans people and allies wherever we go in the world. There will always be a community for us.

In many non-western nations, trans people are even more accepted than they are here in the States. There are beautiful cultures that embrace gender diversity, and it's rooted in their history.

Traveling should not be something that's a fear for us. It is something that we should come to embrace.

What should other travelers to know?

Haseen: If you are traveling with a trans companion, it is important to practice allyship. That comes in the form of protecting their identity and (building) a community of travelers with us. Often, we feel isolated already in our lived experiences so even small acts of kindness and camaraderie while traveling can make a wonderful experience for us. We want to be able to see the wonders of the Earth without bias or judgment and to capture the human experience like everyone else.

What would you change about travel, if you could?

Whalen: I think border crossings and airports are a place of intense personal surveillance. They're a place of racial profiling. There's the term flying while Muslim,  traveling while trans because many communities – the Black community, the Muslim community, the trans community, pretty much any people of color  – are going to be much more heavily profiled at border crossings and at airports and other ports of entry to a country. And that's just really unfair ... We need to end this violence, policing of marginalized folks.

Haseen: Traveling needs to be safer for gender minorities, and there needs to be international laws that protect trans travelers. There are some places in the world that I would love to travel to but will never have the chance because my life would be in danger if I were to travel there.

You could say that I can change my gender marker and try to blend in, but many trans people don’t have the luxury to medically transition and pass as cisgender to the outside world. And even then, we always face the fear of persecution and even death no matter where we go.