Part 6: Traveling while trans
If you look at the photos from our first trip to Greece, you see two children. One, the shorter, has longer hair often pulled back in a ponytail and is frequently carrying a Beanie Baby cat. The taller of the two has shorter hair, only down to the bottom of the jaw. The days of them being mistaken for twins are gone, but there is certainly a family resemblance.
The Year of the Haircut.
When I think back to this trip, I remember being held up by customs officials in three different countries as they compared me to the photo in my passport. I didn’t know it then, but the stares were only going to get worse until I got a new passport in 2003.
Incredibly, my grandparents never mentioned the haircut when they saw me. Well, at least to me. If they said anything to Mom or Dad, I’ve never known about it. Aunt Lil, who travelled with us, told me that it looked awesome, reinforcing why she was one of my favorite relatives.
For the most part, the rest of the trip was uneventful, except for our trip to the beach. With my short haircut and skinny build, I probably could have gotten away with running around in swim trunks. But no, I wore a blue one-piece swimsuit. This was the first time that I can recall being in public and feeling people’s eyes on me, questioning my appearance and trying to figure out my gender.
This trip, we not only spent time in Athens but in London, as well. In the year and a half since I’d gotten my hair cut, I was starting to get used to being mistaken for a little boy, but this was the first time that strangers would address me with either male or female pronouns. I distinctly remember visiting a bookstore in London. The aisles were rather narrow, and a woman said, “Excuse me young man,” so I moved aside to let her pass. Not two minutes later, a shopkeeper approached me and asked, “D’you need help finding anything, miss?” Thankfully, my parents didn’t hear either of these exchanges; they tended to “correct” people who used masculine pronouns when referring to me.
In some ways, this was one of the toughest years of travel for me.
I mentioned previously that I went to the British Isles for three weeks as part of a People to People Student Ambassador delegation, a group of about thirty teenagers. Most of us were from the Pittsburgh area, but once overseas a group of six from eastern PA and New Jersey joined us. I was the youngest in the group at only thirteen years old; everyone else was fourteen. Those of us in the Pittsburgh contingent met several times in the months prior to the trip, so by the time the plane took off everyone knew to call me CJ and didn’t question my gender (at least when I was in earshot). During the trip, it became a source of much amusement when people we met would mis-gender me. Well, amusing for my friends, anyway; I would laugh, but inwardly I cringed for not having the courage to stand up for myself.
In Athens that year, things with my parents were a little tense, especially with Mom. Looking back though, I don’t know if this was typically teen drama, issues over how I looked and acted, or just my reaction to having spent so much time away from home.
Four years, four trips, four more bouts with gender dysphoria in a different country. By this time, Mom clued in to the fact that people often saw me as a boy, and she was quick to correct anyone who mis-gendered me in her earshot. She also got on my case about shaving my armpits and legs prior to and during the trips, saying that it would make Grandpa happy. I honestly don’t know what he thought, because he never mentioned any such preferences to me. I hated shaving, because it increased my feelings of dysphoria.
Out on the streets, I could feel the stares of the shop owners, waiters, and other pedestrians. As at home, I avoided public restrooms at all costs, because I didn’t want to deal with the inevitable questions that followed. Even so, random people would ask if I was a boy or a girl. Fortunately, I was good at pretending to ignore them, especially when they would ask the question in Greek. Oh yes, I learned what that question sounded like in another language! Some of the more persistent individuals would switch to English if I didn’t respond to their first question. I have a distinct memory of one of these experiences: The family and I were seated in the coffee shop in the hotel lobby, chatting with the grandparents. Two women, probably not much younger than Yiayia, were seated nearby. At some point during the visit, I became aware of their scrutiny of me. When my family got up to return to our rooms, I had to pass by them to help Yiayia from her seat. One of the woman tried to get my attention by addressing me first in Greek, then English. I didn’t acknowledge her, and fortunately, thankfully, she didn’t insist.
While I didn’t know it at the time, this would be the last trip where I saw Grandpa. Like every year prior, he greeted me with a hug and a smile, and I never saw that smile waver while we visited. If he ever had questions about my appearance, he never asked me. Once more, out in public people assumed I was a boy, and Mom continued to “correct” them.
For the first time, the entire family didn’t travel together. Mom and I went to Greece in May, while Dad and L went later in the summer. Athens felt very different that year, mainly because Grandpa was no longer there. The flat suddenly seemed larger and quieter with only Yiayia there.
Both in Athens and then in London (where we spent a few days), there was the usual tension between Mom and I. I remember being lectured repeatedly on proper dress and manners for our theatre outings in London’s West End. Given how frequently we attended the theatre at home, I was a little irked by this, especially as, once again, Mom was trying to make me look feminine.
Tension with Mom was at an all-time high this trip. I had come out to her and Dad as a boy late the previous year, and to say that she was unhappy would be a gross understatement. Aunt S and my cousin J travelled with us, and like me they were appalled at the way Mom spoke with and treated me. I was lectured repeatedly both before and during the trip on what was appropriate to wear (sports bras instead of binders), and there was yet another battle over shaving my legs.
Some of my favorite memories of this trip are of when my cousin and I would go off by ourselves in the city. No one looked twice, and on more than one occasion we were called “sirs”.
My first trip overseas by myself started off rather hilariously. My younger sister, L, generously drove me to the airport, and kept me company in the line at the check-in desk. On reaching the desk, I gave my passport and receipt to the attendant, who then promptly turned to my sister and asked, “Do you want an unaccompanied minor tag for him?” To which my sister indignantly replied, “Excuse me, I am not his mother!” Being the helpful brother that I am, I was too busy holding in my laughter to say anything in my own defense. This was especially difficult when the clerk’s face went bright red as he stammered an apology and got to work printing my boarding passes. I managed to keep my face reasonably straight while answering the usual litany of questions, and as the clerk finally handed over my documents, he apologized again. As we walked towards the security checkpoint, I was grinning like a fool: Even after he opened my passport, which was marked “F”, he still called me “sir”. Being the awesome sister that she is, L knew exactly why I was smiling, and, while still annoyed at being taken for my mother, told me, “See? I bet you don’t get called a girl once.”
And she was right! Since I was traveling by myself, I didn’t have to argue with anyone about shaving my legs, and could wear my binders without getting an earful. Sure enough, not once on the trip did anyone refer to me using feminine pronouns or “ma’am” or “miss”. The only issue I encountered was that I had to censor myself during my conversations with Yiayia, as I had not yet come out to her. While I was reasonably certain that she would love me regardless, the fact of the matter was that she was born and raised in a time and place of which I had little knowledge (early 20th century Alexandria, Egypt), and I truthfully didn’t know what her reaction would be. Plus, if I told her and she didn’t take it well, I knew that I would get an earful from Mom, who at this time still thought I was making a poor life choice. So as much as it pained me, I stayed in the closet for another year.
This year’s trip was delightful for two reasons: I was traveling with L, and I finally talked to Yiayia.
In the year since my previous visit, Mom had finally come around, and with her and Dad’s support I began hormone therapy and got my name legally changed. The new name meant another new passport, but I was more than okay with this; no more customs officials asking questions about why I had a girl’s name. Right around the time of the name change, I wrote a special letter to Yiayia, explaining everything. With my permission, Mom and Aunt S both read the letter before I sent it because I wanted to make sure that I had written in a way that was easy to understand. To my immense surprise and relief, I received a reply about a month later. (Even though I write on a monthly basis, Yiayia rarely replies because it is difficult for her to hold a pen steady.) In the letter, she reminded me how much she loves me and said how proud she was of me and that she couldn’t wait to see me that summer.
L is notorious for how late she sleeps in, so my morning visits with Yiayia were often just the two of us. We had several conversations about my Transition, allowing her to ask any and all questions that she had and me to reply with what I felt comfortable. As she reminded me several times, she was happy to see me happy. For this reason, this visit holds a special place in my heart.
My new passport this year finally had the correct gender designation on it. Once again, I traveled alone, but this year I added another country to the itinerary.
After spending a few days in Athens, I flew to Switzerland, where I stayed for a week with Her and her family. Who is She? Oh, just the girl I had a crush on for four years (at this point, it had only been two). While She requested that we stay just friends, we have always had a very easy relationship, and I was glad of the chance to get to see where she grew up. Almost from the day we met, She has known that I am transgender, and it has never been a barrier. Actually, I have always found Her extremely easy to talk to, about Transition or anything else. That week that I spent with Her and her family remains one of my favorite memories.
For the first time since I was ten, I didn’t make it overseas. These two years brought my two surgeries, and traveling was out of the question.
Of course, I’ve written five other posts about this year’s trip. I was more than a little apprehensive about traveling with the parents again, especially Mom, but my fears proved to be unfounded. As Dad pointed out when I raised my concerns with him before we went, the biggest source of tension on the last trip we took together, my status as trans, is no longer an issue.
Seeing Yiayia again was well worth the long plane ride. She made a point of telling me how much she likes my beard, which is new since I last saw her. She also once again reminded me how proud she is of me and how much she loves me.
Being out on the streets in Athens is no longer the nerve-wracking experience it once was. As at home, I am now visibly male, and so there are no more awkward questions or looks from passers-by. I even used public restrooms several times, with much less apprehension than I do at home; European architecture means that the stalls in public bathrooms are essentially little rooms in and of themselves, with floor to ceiling walls and no gaps around the doors.
While I may be back in the States, my adventures are just beginning. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have secured a teaching job in Alaska. It’s a good thing I like a challenge, because this one promises to be a doozy. Thankfully, I have the experience of 16 years of travel to see me through.