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The Strange Reality of Traveling As a Queer, Fat, Disabled, Woman of Color

One Out Traveler's Fear of Flying While Fat

Our newest Out Traveler is a disabled, pansexual fat activist and Alaskan Native (Tsimshian) with a butch wife (who is also Black and Native), and two grown sons (one of whom is autistic). And she goes everywhere (at home and on the road) in a power wheelchair. Dustina Haase-Lanier tell us about her experiences traveling.

 

When did you first start traveling?

My tribe, Tsimshian, are in Canada as well as Alaska and so tribal membership crosses the Canadian border, but I did not get my passport until I was in my 30s. That says more about my economic state than anything else. Because of my family’s extreme poverty, I had not done any other kind of travel, other than to and from Alaska. I didn’t get my American passport until my wife and I started to think about travel outside the U.S. 

You face difficulties flying as a disabled woman of size but so does your wife, who is not.

Yeah, every time I travel by plane I have to let the airline know at least three weeks ahead of time about my power chair and the weight and type of batteries, which makes any kind of spontaneous flying a nonstarter. TSA has become my worst nightmare and often triggers my PTSD. They separate me from my family and those in line, moving me over to a place in front of everyone but sequestered off to the side, often loudly shouting for a female to come do my pat down. Then they do a full body search including hands up under my buttocks and up my inner thighs while saying the refrain, “I am going to go up your inner thigh until I meet resistance.” Think about what “resistance” is.

TSA is also scary because my wife is brown and butch. Frequently she gets pulled aside for a random pat down, so we’ll both be pulled apart to deal with different harassment and it was even harder when the kids were younger. TSA agents can get really upset and have a hard time reconciling my wife’s appearance and her name Jennifer. The stare up and then down while holding her passport is always the first indicator that they are going to pull her aside.

Boarding is always another stress point? 

Right. Because they are going to take my chair from me to load it, they must strap my body to a chair that is about 13 inches wide — it looks like a miniature luggage carrier — and then they proceed to pull my body down the aisle of the plane bouncing between each of the seats on the aisle, kind of like your luggage does, which leaves my body bruised and scraped from just being dragged to my seat. I now try for first class seats because it’s fewer seats for my body to drag up against and less pain for me. 

The airlines are supposed to keep this “aisle chair” on the plane so if you need to go to the bathroom or there’s an emergency, right? 

I ask on every flight if they have one and I have yet to have anyone say yes. So I can’t go to the bathroom on the plane at all.

And what about ADA compliance?

I have a power chair, so most ADA compliant doorways have maybe one inch clearance if they are even ADA compliant. I frequently ask ahead if a place is accessible only to find that it is — except for the bathroom, the hallway, the front door dip, etc. Historical buildings get grandfathered in so they generally aren’t accessible. There are restrooms built with plenty of space to negotiate my chair…[but] someone filled that space with more furniture because “there is so much empty space.” 

What’s the most difficult part?

Most things are difficult because folks won’t respect my body and I’m often seen as less than an autonomous person. You know, like people asking my wife what I need instead of asking me. Or if my chair doesn’t fit somewhere I am treated like I have done something wrong. In many cases, it would take very little to make things much better. 

 

This piece initially ran in Out Traveler print edition, Winter 2022 is now on newsstands.

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