How One Trans Man Got On a Plane With No ID
This June I experienced a traveler’s worst nightmare: I lost my wallet.
I was visiting New York from California and I had just attended the Lambda Literary Foundation awards ceremony. I was in the New York subway when I realized I didn’t have my wallet. Of course my first concern was how to get back to the house where I was staying, so all I could think about was how to scrounge up enough money to ride the subway.
Then I realized I had far bigger problems. My wallet included enough information for someone steal my entire identity:
• A metro card
• A driver’s license
• a credit card
• an ATM card
• a blank check (which included my bank account number)
• my Medicare card (which included my Social Security number)
• a medical cafeteria debit card
• a business card
• other medical insurance cards
So with what someone found in my wallet they could literally set up bank accounts, transfer money out of my current account, or steal my entire identity. In fact, as Forbes reported earlier this year, “according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 20% of people who have had their identity stolen believed the information came from a wayward wallet or checkbook.”
Think ahead when you’re traveling and only take the material you actually need. Don’t take everything with you. I didn’t need to be walking around with my Medicare card, blank checks or my medical cafeteria debit card. Also consider leaving some important cards in a separate location. Take one credit card with you during the day and leave another locked safely in your hotel. Put some cash in your wallet and some in your pocket or backpack.
But let’s say you didn’t follow those instructions and like me, you’ve lost all of your stuff. First you’ll want to contact your credit cards and bank accounts, and let them know that your wallet has been lost/stolen. If you aren’t sure which, you may just want to close everything. If you think you may still find your wallet, you’ll still want to contact financial institutions, so they will be alert for unusual activity and they can stop things before it gets out of hand. Here’s a tip for making all these calls go smoothly: memorize or leave your credit card numbers and bank account information with a trusted family member. Because having those numbers on hand when you call to report things stolen/lost will dramatically speed up the process.
Next, if you have time, file a police report about your lost or stolen wallet. While this is not essential, it is highly recommended. It will document your loss, and will be an important paper trail for TSA agents, financial institutions, and law enforcement. Do it as soon as possible because it will help establish a timeline. And any bureaucrats you have to deal with (including TSA agents) will want a copy of the report or the report number.
Now let’s say you don’t have time to file a police report. I didn’t. At the time I didn’t think about how it would help me and I had a very limited amount of time. Instead, I spent the morning running around New York looking for my wallet. I had realized a much more urgent problem than having my identity stolen: without my driver’s license, how could I get past airport security and fly home, as I was scheduled to do later that afternoon following a very important meeting?
At first I thought my only option lay in staying in New York a few more days and having another form of identification over-nighted to me. I did have a passport at home. But it could just as easily be dismissed as unacceptable. After all, it contains a rather glaring error. Although my name is Jacob and I sport a scruffy goatee; my passport indicates that I’m female. Of course, this “error” is certainly explainable: I’m after all a transgender man. At one point I was female. Still, using it as identification when traveling is always a quandary. Do I trust that the travel official will assume it’s a mistake? Do I out myself and hope they’re not trans-phobic?
The problem is, if I’m overly upfront, and point out the discrepancy — even if I explain my transgender status while doing so — I still risk having my identification discarded because it doesn’t match my presentation. Recently, the federal government has changed its rules around passports, so the next time I update mine, I’ll be able to correct it. But in the meantime, it still lists my name as Jacob and my sex as “F.” And the truth is, security officials could refuse to accept my passport because of the discrepancy. Still, the existence of the passport provided me with one option for accessing some form of identification, even if it would definitely take a day or two to have it Fedex-ed. In the meantime, my plane was scheduled to leave that evening. While I was running around, my wife Diane did some research and discovered that the TSA has rules and regulations for handling circumstances where a traveler has lost their identification. When you think about it, this must happen all the time.
The following applies specifically to circumstances where a traveler has already flown one way and has a return ticket. The rules may be different if you have to a new ticket or if you don’t have a return flight already scheduled. So here’s what to do if you find yourself without any form of identification.
Get to the airport as soon as possible. Time will be of the essence because it can take several hours for you to get through security without identification. You will need to arrive at the airport as early as possible to guarantee that you will make your flight. Making your scheduled flight is essential, because the rules change dramatically if you are instead trying to make arrangements for a new flight when you have no ID or credit cards.
Diane had also gone online and checked me in and paid for my baggage. If you have someone who can do that for you, it will help. I was flying Virgin Airlines out of JFK international airport. Things might be different with another airline or airports. I went directly to Virgin Airlines’ ticket counter and immediately told them that I didn’t have my ID or my wallet. They asked me if I had any other form of identification, in particular, if I had a credit card with my picture on it. I don’t and if I had, it would’ve been in my wallet. But if you do have that — or anything else with your name and photo — it may be the answer to all of your problems. Tip: Don’t check anything that could help you prove your identity. (See more on this later).
Because I had been checked in online and my bag was pre-paid for, Virgin Airlines took my checked luggage and issued me a boarding pass. They sent me to the regular TSA line for my departure gate. The first TSA agent I came to, I told my story, that I had no identification because I had lost my wallet. She said not to worry, there was a process for handling this kind of thing. She told me to just stand in the regular line. But a few moments later — because I’m disabled or maybe because she realized I was going to require special attention, I’m not sure which — she actually led me to bypass the line and go directly to the agent reviewing passenger identification ahead of the scanning machines. I repeated my story. You will do this a lot.
I was again asked if I had other identification or credit cards. I said “No.” The agent called for a supervisor, and asked me to step to one side, where I waited for 15 minutes.
Once the supervisor arrived, the TSA agent told her the problem. Then she asked me to tell her the problem. She asked if I had filed a police report. I explained why I had not. She asked if I had anything with my name and face printed on it. Although this was essentially the same question I had already been asked; when she put it this way, rather than just asking for identification, I suddenly remembered something: I’m a published author! I had even brought a couple of my mystery novels to New York City. I’d given most of them away as gifts, but I still had one. My name was printed on it and, even better, there was an author photo on the back. It was perfect! It was all the identification I would need.
Only it was packed in my checked luggage.
It hadn’t occurred to me earlier that certain materials could be useful for identification purposes. So I had checked everything — books and paperwork included — that I thought I wouldn’t need on the flight. Let this be a lesson for you. Don’t check anything that might help you prove your identity! The TSA supervisor had to research what to do next. She left me sifting through my carry on, desperately looking for anything that might have my name and address printed on it. I couldn’t find any of my business cards. I had checked the business card holder I carry around. I had brought a magazine from home, but having read it, I’d checked it. I hadn’t brought any utility bills with me, but those would have also helped as they had my name and address printed on them.
When describing where I lost my wallet, I had told the TSA supervisor about the event I had attended. She asked me if I had anything to verify I had been to the awards ceremony. Rummaging through my carry-on, I located my printed name tag and the Lammys’ program, which listed my name as one of the Lambda Literary Foundation board members. The program also included photos and short bios of all the presenters. I had been a presenter, so this could have been my salvation. But, I was a last minute replacement for someone else, and it was their photo that had been printed, not mine. Still, the program showed my name in print, and was verification of a portion of my story. Any portion of your story that you can verify becomes one more point in your favor; one more bit of evidence that you are who you say you are. While a single piece of circumstantial evidence will not be enough; if you are able to compile enough, you may get through security without being subjected to more invasive measures.
The next step in the process is for the TSA agent to ask you a number of personal questions to confirm that you are the person you say you are. I’m not exactly sure where they get this information: it may be directly from your credit report, it may be some secret government database. While on the phone with someone, the TSA supervisor relayed a number of questions about where I was born, where I previously lived, the street address where I lived five years ago, places that I’d worked at in the past. The kind of questions that you should know the answer to, but you may not. For example, I could not for the life of me remember my street address from five years ago. I just started listing off cities that I had lived in and finally they decided that they gotten enough and moved on to another question.
My problem is that I normally refer to paper documentation that has this information on it. I’m not suggesting that you carry that stuff around or that you refer to a paper when they’re asking these questions because of course they don’t want you to have that paperwork. It would belie the whole process. Plus you don’t want to have that kind information on you because it will make it even easier for someone to steal your identity. But you may want to remind yourself before you go on a trip where you lived in the last few years if you moved around a lot like I have.
Okay, they have now gone through all of your questions and they think that you answered them truthfully/correctly, and that you may indeed be the person that you’re claiming to be. Still, you may not be done yet.
They will most likely want to do a more intensive security sweep of you and your belongings. In my case this started with me getting a pat down by a male TSA agent.
No one probably looks forward to this kind of physically intrusive probing, but they can be particularly disconcerting for trans folks. That’s because our bodies don’t always feel the same as other people’s, and we may be wearing various kinds of prosthetics or binders, so we may be in a position of either outing ourselves or risking that something unusual will be found.
While a prosthetic can be explained, there comes a point at which having too many explainable items may get you sidelined as a security threat. If you’ve lost your identification you are already under heightened scrutiny. If you walk with a cane or use some other mobility device like me, that will also draw attention. So if you add that you are transgender or are wearing some kind of prosthesis, it could tip the scales against you. As security personnel they would rather risk inconveniencing an innocent traveler then allowing a terrorist to board a plane.
Invasive and embarrassing circumstances continue to happen, but the truth is, TSA actually has rules and regulations for treating transgender passengers respectfully. You can find this information (and how to file a complaint if you experience unprofessional or discriminatory conduct) on their webpage for trans travelers (http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/transgender-travelers). If you are trans, it is worth reviewing before you travel (or printing a copy to carry with you). Two of the most important items on the fact sheet involve prosthetics and screening/pat-downs.
• Prosthetics: Although they warn that any prosthetics with metal may initiate further scrutiny, TSA insists: “Travelers should neither be asked to nor agree to lift, remove, or raise any article of clothing to reveal a prosthetic and should not be asked to remove it.”
• Private Screening: You can request that a screening or pat-down be conducted in a private screening area; and you have the right to have “a witness or companion of the traveler’s choosing” accompany you.
Another word of advice for travelers who are transgender. It can help you to carry a letter from your doctor or psychologist, just stating that you are transgender. Again, it’s just one more thing to help you prove your story of who you are and why you present the way you do.
After my pat-down, the TSA agents submitted my electronic equipment to a heightened level of scrutiny and then I was passed! I avoided screaming out in my exuberance, because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself at that point, but I was ecstatic. I immediately went to my gate. Then, having several hours to kill I stopped into an Irish pub. Just before I ordered, I realized another problem. Without identification, I couldn’t order anything alcoholic. I made do with a Kaliber nonalcoholic beer, which wasn’t half bad. Or maybe it was the sweet taste of success and the knowledge that I was actually getting home without an ID.
On another happy note, after I returned home, I received my wallet in the mail; which is one reason to make sure your driver’s license reflects your current mailing address. Thank you, good Samaritan.
Or maybe it was just karma. When I was running around looking for my wallet, I actually stumbled upon someone else’s driver’s license. Once I returned home, I was walking the dogs around the block and found another one. Naturally, I made every effort to get both of those licenses returned soon as possible.
JACOB ANDERSON-MINSHALL is an author, artist, and journalist. Read more about him here.