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Cross Borders But Not Genders? How Trans People Are Still Being Harassed During Air Travel

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When Trans woman Shadi Petosky entered the security area of Orlando International Airport last Monday, little did she anticipate the nightmare that was in store for her. She was detained, interrogated, misgendered, and treated like some sort of a criminal, for the sole reason of identifying as a woman and checking in through women’s security despite having a penis (which was flagged as an ‘anomaly’). As a result of all this, she was forced to miss her flight, and when she tried to get a ticket for the next flight, she was harassed further—all of which she documented through a series of livetweets.

The TSA’s (Transport Security Adminstration) subsequent official statement completely failed to take any responsibility for their atrocious treatment of Petosky. In fact, they insisted that they followed ‘strict guidelines’ and were trained to deal with trans issues. And yet, millions of trans and gender nonconforming people like Petosky have had to face this kind of discrimination, harassment, emotional trauma, and danger for even the most mundane instances of travel.

Before their legal name or sex change, trans people are often stuck with a name and sex on their legal IDs that does not coincide with their physical presentation and identity, which routinely tends to catch the attention of the authorities. This can lead to everything from extra frisking (very often including inappropriate and non-consensual touching in sensitive areas) and other “enhanced” screening procedures ranging from lengthy questioning to refusal of entry from Customs and Immigration. Those who do not opt for a gender-reassignment surgery (and there are many in the transgender community who choose to do so), despite getting their names changed in their official IDs, get stuck with an improper gender marker, as there are laws which specifically require bottom surgery to change an M to an F, and vice versa. This becomes a major complication during air travel, because, one is required to declare one’s “legal gender” to the TSA when buying an air ticket, and, if that gender is presented in “conflict” with the gender that appears on the official ID, it can raise red flags for the TSA and cause extra checks and investigation. Even more problematic are the body scanning procedures during security check, which are based on a person’s sex—i.e, these body scanning machines conduct thorough scans of various organs of the body and flag anomalies when any particular organ is not in tandem with a person’s gender. Trans bodies frequently do not fit into computerized models of either sex; which means that trans people are far more likely to be flagged and subsequently endure “pat-downs” or other humiliating additional screening measures.

The TSA appears to have some institutional problems with how it deals with trans travelers. Though the TSA updated their website recently to include recommendations for making travel easier for trans people (which included suggestions like pat-downs performed on trans people should only be carried out by those of the same gender with which one identifies, TSA officials should not ask intrusive questions about their gender/gender representation, and so on), this Al-Jazeera report reveals how the TSA violates its own protocols and singles out transgender travelers during security checks. National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling has noted that, “Transgender people end up as collateral damage in TSA’s security theater. Any security system that relies on gender and ‘anatomical anomalies’ will always disparately affect transgender and gender non-confirming people.

Due to such horrifying treatment, many transgender people are discouraged from flying, and prefer to travel by train, or by road. However, even then, the threat still lingers. In many parts of the United States, trans people can still be arrested simply for not using the bathroom for the sex assigned to them at birth. Which means—a trans woman could be sent to jail for using the women’s restroom, and a trans man could be sent to jail for using the men’s restroom. Many States, especially in the South, still enforce such draconian, horrific, discriminatory legislation. Hence, even an innocuous bathroom stop while driving from one place to another can prove dangerous to a trans person.

While looking through the internet for personal stories of the travel difficulties faced by trans people, the recurring themes I noticed were: hassle, harassment, and complications. Most people spoke about some manner of difficulty with the TSA, many had unfortunate encounters with other law enforcement authorities, and almost everyone talked about how scary and unsafe finding a bathroom can be. Even today, travelling (especially flying) as a trans person seems like a battle against odds, and the personal liberties, and basic civil rights of trans people are in jeopardy. The TSA, and all other pertinent authorities should not be in a position to deny any innocent individual their right to travel safely. Why should things as harmless as travelling from one place to another, using the bathroom that best suits one’s needs, be cause for such public humiliation and persecution?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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