Traversing the border as a trans person

How “counter-terrorism” denies trans people freedom of movement

It’s uncontroversial to argue that everyone should have freedom of mobility. However, at present, American trans people have their freedom of movement restricted compared to other Americans.

The recent focus on “counter-terrorism” in law enforcement and government agencies has severely limited trans people’s freedom. In the name of the War on Terror, the U.S. government has increased restrictions on identity documents, which are necessary for trans and cis people to drive, fly, cross borders, or engage in many kinds of movement. Following September 11, the Bush administration asked all states to tighten laws about changing one’s gender marker on driver’s licenses. Additionally, according to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, “in local jurisdictions, procedures for changing your name have been made more difficult.” Whether or not identity documents are as important for “national security” as the U.S. government has suggested, these policies unduly deny trans people access to various modes of transportation, since many trans people’s gender presentation will be in flux at one moment or another.

Perhaps the most terrifying new policy regarding identity documents has been the Real ID Act, which essentially creates a de facto national ID card out of state driver’s licenses. This act entails massive and particularly threatening violations of trans people’s privacy. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality states that in 2008, the Real ID’s guidelines mandated that all state driver’s licenses contain a bar-code that would hold information on gender and name changes – information which would out trans people against their will. Thankfully, this provision was removed, and several states have passed laws stating that they will not comply with the Real ID Act. However, even under the more recent version – or under a proposed alternative bill called PASS ID – states would have to store birth certificates and other identification digitally, which could still out trans people at borders, airports, and even during routine traffic stops. The fact that this remains an issue under the Obama administration shows that we can’t just blame Bush for this policy – this requirement is part of a wider social perspective on what’s “necessary” or “acceptable” in counter-terrorism tactics.

Additionally, in 2003, the U.S. government advised airports to be suspicious of “men dressed in women’s clothing.” This directive limits the ability of many kinds of trans people to present themselves as they choose while travelling. They are forced to decide between their freedom of movement or their authentic gender presentation. As far as I can tell, a case involving a cross-dressing terrorist has yet to materialize; if it had, the news coverage of such a momentous occasion would have been inescapable. This argument parallels the right-wing strategy of countering trans non-discrimination laws by arguing that, if we pass such laws, we’ll see (male) sexual predators “invading” women’s bathrooms. In both cases, the justification for policies that allow discrimination against trans people is “protecting” people against an invented bogeyman. Unfortunately, these strategies have proven to be effective.

The “no-fly” lists that U.S. government agencies have developed are the most recent attempt to reduce freedom of mobility for trans people. In August, the Transportation Security Agency enacted new policies requiring airlines to check whether people are on these “no-fly” lists. The new policies also require all passengers to provide their gender and date of birth to whomever is booking their ticket. These restrictions come on the heels of regulations put in place in May that require passengers to use their legal name exactly as it appears on their ID. There is no oversight of how these private individuals use information about a passenger’s gender; it’s entirely possible that airlines and travel agencies may store this information in a database, which could make it difficult for trans people to determine on their own if they want to out themselves while travelling – someone else will have power over that information.

The U.S. needs to re-examine all of these policies and evaluate them on their privacy-protection and gendering implications, and then scrap any one of them that prevents innocent people from moving around freely. This war on an abstract noun is no excuse for denying anyone their freedom of mobility.

Quinn Albaugh writes in this space every week. Tell ’em about your cross-dressing terrorist sightings at