Let me preface all of this with the obvious: I’m a white, native English speaker from American who can (somewhat) afford to travel (thanks Brexit for saving me some serious £££ that allowed me pull off this three week adventure). Those are all huge privileges that greatly impact how I navigate the world while traveling. I have to remind myself that even with the challenges that I face while traveling the ability to travel in itself is a privilege.
However, traveling while trans can be dangerous, nerve-wracking, complicated and scary. Traveling is gendered, and, like all gendered entities, isn’t inherently inclusive of trans people. At moments, I’ve felt like travel isn’t meant for me because I am transgender. Whether it’s bathrooms (which will always be the bane of my existence no matter where I am), border control taking a few extra looks at your passport photo which looks drastically different than the person standing there, or airport security pointing and whispering with fellow officers before selecting male or female on the full-body scanner, traveling while trans when you don’t pass and don’t have your legal documents changed can be a nightmare.
When I first looked into spending three weeks with The Monsoon Diaries backpacking through Russia, Mongolia, China and Tibet, I couldn’t be more excited at the possibility. But I was also terrified. It’s not like those are places that are known for being LGBT-friendly but rather the exact opposite. I mean who doesn’t remember the controversy from the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi? I kept questioning whether or not the experience would be worth the fear, discomfort and risk.
Let me go ahead and say it was absolutely worth it.
But that’s not to say the trip went without its challenges in regards to my gender and sexuality. Here’s a breakdown the uniquely unsettling experiences that I had as a trans person while traveling through three countries known for being anti-LGBTQ.
What to pack (and not pack)
Packing for a Siberian winter is daunting in itself. Bringing enough layers without over-packing is a balancing act. Finding a way to compress your ski pants so they’ll fit into your backpack is annoying. Keeping track of little things like hand/toe warmers, gloves and hats that are necessary but easy to lose is frustrating.
But let’s complicate things a bit more.
Do I bring my binder? While I don’t bind my chest that often because it hurts my back way too much, there’s something extremely comforting about simply having it with me in case there are days when the dysphoria is particularly bad. However, I knew that it would take up unnecessary space and risk outing me in potentially unsafe situations (such as airport security). So no binder.
Do I wear my typical masculine/androgynous clothing or femme it up a bit to ensure a degree of safety? There are few things that make me feel as bad-ass and confident as strutting down the street in a super masculine and butch outfit. But that simultaneously puts me at risk because those are the moments when I get the looks of confusion about my gender. The slow but steady effects of testosterone make this more difficult even when I’m dressed femininely because people read me less and less as a woman (which is what I want, but also makes me an “easy target”). So even if I dress femininely, I still may face issues as a result of other’s uncertainty, and if I am read as woman, I’ll still face all the issues that cis women face when traveling. Basically it’s a lose-lose situation.
Do I bring my testosterone? That was a quick and easy no. Over the course of the three weeks, I went through security at six different airport terminals and five different train stations (some of these involved multiple screenings), plus numerous security check points at border crossings, subway stations, etc. With the exception of flying out of Heathrow, these were all in countries where transgender people are not able to legally access hormone replacement therapy. So my weekly testosterone shot wasn’t going to be an option. What I didn’t think through fully was the consequence that this would have on my body. An almost guaranteed result of HRT for AFAB trans folks is no more periods. Which is normally amazing. But I didn’t think about how quickly my body would apparently decide to start it’s cycle back after temporarily stopping HRT. So that 40 hour train ride from Tibet to Beijing? The morning I left I got my period for the first time in over a year and a half. I forgot how bad cramps can be and squat toilets are not an ideal situation for handling a heavy flow. Certainly not a pleasant situation, but better than getting my prescription taken away (best case scenario) or deported for having what’s considered an illegal substance (worst case scenario) had I attempted to bring along the medicine, needles and syringes.
What do people call me?
I haven’t legally changed my name yet so this inevitably means getting deadnamed when traveling because every single one of my travel documents has to have my legal name rather than Taylan. This royally sucks. While travel mates might post exciting photos of visas, travel permits, passports, or tickets (with sensitive information redacted, of course) as a way to share their adventures, I’m the one sitting there hoping no one sees those documents who doesn’t have to so I’m not put in an awkward situation of being asked about my deadname.
These documents also raise some potential concerns for future travel should I ever decide to legally change my name or gender marker. The Chinese visa I got is valid for 10 years. If I legally change my name within that time period, I would need a new passport, which wouldn’t match my visa, meaning I would need to pay for new visa. I know, this is a very petty, “first-world problem” situation, but it does make you wonder how name and gender marker changes impact your ability to visit countries with anti-LGBT legislation. For instance, if I wanted to visit Russia (which fingerprints you for a visa) after legally changing my name and/or gender, would they deny me another visa simply because I’m transgender? It’s not like I could go under the radar and pretend like I haven’t been before: they have my fingerprints. They would easily find out, and knowing Russia’s stance on LGBT people, I wouldn’t be surprised if a legal name or gender change would cease my ability to ever travel there again. Again, first-world problem here, but for someone with as much wanderlust as me, it’s a legitimate concern.
Then there’s pronouns with my fellow Monsooners. Having known the leader, Calvin, through a mutual friend, I felt confident he would attract open-minded travelers so I was fully ready to come out to them beforehand. But I decided not to (though I think many figured it out one way or another at some point on the trip). This was not because I was worried about them and how they would react to me being trans but I was worried about other people overhearing how they gendered me. My physical appearance was already going to put me at risk in many situations so of course I wanted to avoid any possibility of being outed to those not in my group. Hiding my identity is not something I enjoyed doing, but it felt necessary in order to feel somewhat safe while traveling.
When we were in Moscow, many people in the group wanted to go to a traditional Russian bathhouse. Initially, we wanted to get a private room so we could all be together, regardless of gender. However, by the time we were able to call to make a reservation there were no more private rooms available. So if we wanted to do it, it was the public rooms, which were segregated by gender.
I ultimately decided not to go because of this. I was willing to push through the discomfort with my body that stems from gender dysphoria when I was going to be in a private room with a group of friends who at this point I had learned to trust. I wasn’t willing to do so in a public space where I could be subjected to discrimination or even violence because of my gender. In many ways, I felt like I missed out on an important experience of Russian culture. But I had to make a decision for what was more important: my sense of safety and comfort or embracing and experiencing the culture. Throughout the trip I learned that this is a balancing act and it's never clear-cut.
In Saint Petersburg, we visited a mosque. I’ve been to countless mosques before, but it’s been a few years – all before I came out as transgender. When I visited mosques, I was accustom to covering my head, since that is what is expected of women.
However, now I’m not a woman. (In hindsight I wasn’t back then either, but I didn’t know it at the time and that’s another topic for another day…) Regardless of my identity, people will still incorrectly gender me, most often as a woman. So as we were trying to find the entrance to the mosque, I had some serious internal anxiety. Do I cover my head or not? How do I, especially as a white person, respect the culture and religion when entering a mosque without being untrue to myself? Is it possible to do both or do I have to pick? How do Muslim transgender people navigate this situation, and is that what I should follow suit to?
Thankfully the cold Russian winter resolved the dilemma for me this time as everyone, men included, had on hats. I instantly felt relief when I didn’t have to make that decision. But when I inevitably visit a mosque again in the future, I’ll have the same internal debate that I don’t think there’s a perfect solution to.
Finally, many of the folks I was traveling with decided to utilise Tinder as a way to meet locals (because what’s a better way to learn about the culture and area you’re visiting than to talk to people who live it every day?). I briefly considered logging into my Tinder account to see what the queer scene would be like. But that consideration did not last long as paranoid thoughts about being targeted by local trolls or even the government creeped into my mind. I’ve been harassed on Tinder before for being trans, I wasn’t about to find out what it would be like while in another country.
Over the three weeks, these challenges taught me that I shouldn’t let my identity hold me back from traveling. The few moments when I did feel safe enough to talk about my identity with my fellow travellers where the moments that empowered me and made me want to travel more openly as a small act of resistance. I found that, for me, merging my trans identity with travel can be a radical act of self-love by saying “fuck you” to the system that is designed to hold us down and doing something for me simply because I deserve it even though we live in a world that teaches trans people that we aren’t worthy. Traveling while trans has taught me that I am worthy and has inspired me to take on the world as an out trans person, carving out a space for my existence to be seen and validated.