Not all bodies are made for travel. That’s the message the system sends us. The right to free movement is a privilege reserved for those in power. There are enormous controls put in place to monitor, restrict, and punish the movement of certain bodies.
There are borders, immigration laws, identification requirements, bureaucracy, and infrastructure that curtails the movement of people in modern society. And they combine to make it clear which bodies are free to move about the planet and which need to be contained, prevented from leaving or entering certain areas, or (literally or metaphorically) removed from the public sphere.
A woman who uses a wheelchair traveling in Japan (Kyotokushige/Getty Images)
The bodies granted the greatest freedom in traveling from one place to another tend to be white, able-bodied cis men of a certain size, age, and class. The bodies prevented from free movement are often BIPOC, queer, disabled, trans, old or very young, femme, or large-sized.
As a trans, queer, and disabled traveler, it often seems clear that I’m not the person the industry expected when it imagined who it would be serving. I’m more disabled when I travel. That’s not a metaphor. I mean that when I leave the managed environment of my home the world is less accommodating. Things become harder to do, and those difficulties increase my limitations by degrees of magnitude.
At airport security I must relinquish my cane. I’ve perfected a stork stance to keep weight off my nerve damaged left foot, but inside the full body scanner they insist I set my foot down, and put my hands over my head, so even if I try to use the wooden cane they sometimes offer me, I’m in a bind.
Scanner software is supposed to pinpoint objects under clothing, but experience suggests the machines often interpret certain kinds of human flesh as needing additional screening. Lost a lot of weight? They may read you as carrying extra baggage instead of loose skin. Many people who have lost or gained significant weight are hand searched every single time they fly.
The same machines often light up my crotch. At this point I usually tell the federal employee that I’m trans. They typically stare at me blankly. I spell it out for them, saying it slowly, “I am transgender.” I am hoping that it will register but if it doesn’t, I keep talking. “My crotch may feel different from what you expect.”
TSA and most airports say they have rules in place for how to treat trans travelers. I don’t think I’ve ever met a TSA agent that knows them or implements them. Best case scenario is I get a pat down by a male security agent who seems nearly as uncomfortable touching my crotch as I am. I’m not allowed to retrieve my items, including my cane, until after the pat down. So, I’m still standing stork-style, swaying like a tree in the wind. Sometimes a supervisor has to be called — possibly because I’ve invoked the word “transgender” and they can’t decide if that means I need a male or female agent to pat me down. The wait stretches into eternity. Occasionally, an agent will hand me my cane, but usually I’m still standing on one foot trying not to topple over.
I recently read of a trans man being forced to pull the prosthesis from his pants and show it to an agent. And I admit to the occasional thought of dropping trou simply to move things along. Every minute I stand exponentially reduces the amount of time I can do something else. Stand for five minutes, I may have to cut my next day by an hour or two. Stand for an hour, and I might be unable to get out of bed for a few days. Traveling with chronic pain means navigating these choices because the airports aren’t made for us.
Airports have grown bigger, stretching out the space between gates and concourses until travelers may end up hiking from a few blocks to a mile or more. That’s not a big deal for some people. It is excruciating for others.
I can walk, so it feels ridiculous to ask for a wheelchair. But after standing in place for security, walking can also quickly become unmanageable. In large airports, the distance between terminals feels like it stretches into the infinite. I use the moving sidewalks, sit whenever I can, and catch a shuttle when able. Even so, I’m exhausted when I reach the gate and leaning heavily on the cane I rarely have to use in my day-to-day life. I’m thinking more and more about requesting a wheelchair. It’s not the walking. It’s the standing. And the bureaucracy.
In my most recent travels I arrived at my gate and asked the attendant if I could board early because of my disability. Sometimes a special pass is needed. The attendant replied that my name was not on the list. To get on that list I had to have requested a wheelchair ahead of time. After initially telling me he could do nothing about it, (and our editorial director tweeting a complaint) the attendant later did flag me for early boarding. At my layover I learned he had put me on the list as needing a wheelchair.
The message many travelers get is that we just don’t belong there. That the difficulties we have are proof we are somewhere we shouldn’t be. Travel was not made for us. Much like how bathroom wars seem intent on broadcasting that trans bodies are not welcome in public spaces, the physical realities of travel make it clear that certain bodies should just stay home. The system (if not individual people) wants us to just go away. And if that “going away” is permanent, in the form of death, so be it. Problem solved. The system avoids having to acknowledge, accommodate, or provide for those whose bodies it deems problematic.
I have a shirt that reads “I’m trans and I travel.” The outsiders, body misfits, and the rest of us may have been invisible or ignored, but we are already out there. We are already traveling with bodies that don’t conform to expectations. Trans people, people of color, queer and LGBTQ+ folks, the disabled, fat, and women solo travelers are all out there despite the obstacles we face. We are already there and more and more of us are demanding to not just be tolerated but embraced by destinations and travel brands.
Some of those places and companies already have our backs. It’s odd to talk about travel advertising, when so often it is the unacknowledged companion to editorial content, the stuff that pays the bills. But there have been a handful of marketing campaigns that have truly helped me feel seen and welcomed as a trans and disabled traveler.
The first is the ongoing work of Richard Gray with the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, which includes trans, queer, BIPOC, and disabled people in its mainstream marketing campaigns. Gray (above, center), who was named to the Out100 list (compiled by our sister mag, Out) back in 2020, said at the time, “Diversity…is about more than gender, race, and ethnicity. It has evolved, and it now includes employees with diverse religious and political beliefs, different socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientation, culture, people of size, and people with disabilities.” Gray’s team was the first destination to reach out to trans people specifically and Greater Fort Lauderdale has a lasting place in some of our hearts because of that.
Then last year Orbitz unveiled its “Come As You Are” campaign. It’s not a shameless plug when I admit that no other corporate campaign has, to date, made me rethink how the travel industry should be opening its doors and helping unconventional travelers get out and explore our world. What if they all did this?
What happens when certain bodies fail, not theoretically but in real life, to fit into travel spaces? As Judith Butler might say, this is not an experiment but our social and biological reality. You may not have a space for us, but we are coming.
That’s what this special section is all about: showing that outsider travelers are already on our way. We are coming as we are, in all our glory. And if you aren’t ready, we will know. LGBTQ+ people and the rest of the “outsiders” can tell when there’s been a real commitment to diversity. Or not. If you aren’t ready, we won’t be back. But we won’t stay home either. We’ll go to another, more inclusive hotel, restaurant, or destination.
Ready or not, here we come.
This article originally ran in the Winter 2022 issue of Out Traveler, which is available on the newsstand now. It was initially titled Ready or Not, Here We Come, and introduced the special feature on outsider travelers.