Traveling Non-Binary: Gender Perceptions in Two Cultures
My brother has been living in Turkey for the last 6 years, and I finally made the trip to go see him this summer. As a transgender person, there were a couple of things I made sure to square away before I left. I got a doctor’s note for my vial of testosterone and syringe, just in case that was questioned by the TSA. I considered bringing my homemade STP device (stand to pee), but decided against it in the end, mainly because I feared it’d get pulled out of my luggage and scrutinized.
Mostly though, I didn’t over-think it. The last time I had actually flown was 5 years ago, which was before the use of these “full body” scanners. But I had gone through the whole routine mere months ago, with my spouse and mother-in-law. We were on our way to Ireland when our flight was cancelled at the last minute due to weather. As far as I had gotten at that time, I had no problems with TSA agents when I was going along with them as a group.
“I WAS IMMEDIATELY GENDERED AS MALE AT THE LUGGAGE CHECK-IN DESK, WHICH I WASN’T SURE IF IT WERE A GOOD OR BAD THING.”
Traveling alone proved to be much different though. I was immediately gendered as male at the luggage check-in desk, which I wasn’t sure if it were a good or bad thing. Definitely a new thing – I would say that the scales have tipped more towards “male” than “female” within these past few months now that I have had top surgery. Plus the fact that a higher dose of testosterone has changed my upper body musculature and deepened my voice. As a non-binary person, I’m only half-thrilled at the idea of being seen as male. Ultimately though, it’s better for me than being perceived as female – something that had started to get so old I knew I had to make some changes.
It was kind of all over the place after that however. One TSA agent kept referring to me as “Baby.” And I did end up having to endure a full-body pat-down. I was asked whether I wanted it done in private. That seemed way more intimidating, so I just told the male agent to just do it right then and there. He explained what he would be doing exactly, but not even that could prepare me for his hand very deliberately grazing my junk, not once but twice. I just kind of stared out into oblivion and dissociated (I’m super good at this).
“THEN IN JFK, I WAS REALLY HASSLED BY A TSA AGENT AFTER GOING THROUGH THE SCANNER.”
Then in JFK, I was really hassled by a TSA agent after going through the scanner. I hadn’t held my hands up just right. He didn’t like the fact that my pants were too low on my hips. He repeatedly asked me if I had stuff in my pockets. He asked, “You’re a man.” It was more of a statement than a question, I think, so I did not answer. He repeated it again and again, but I ignored it. I had to go back in the scanner, pull up my pants, and do it right. Blah!
Once I was in Turkey, all of this nervous gender stuff surprisingly disappeared. I used the women’s room in the airport, but after that it did not feel right, in a very clear way, which is not the case for me in America. Turkey is predominately an Islamic country, and the gender binary is very clear, reflected in the clothing and actions of people out in public. It was a big leap for me to start using the men’s room, and although I hadn’t thought about it ahead of time, it seemed completely natural. And it was solidified at one point early on when we were at a rest stop bathroom. We had to pay 1.5 lira (about 40 cents) and go through a turnstile. I started to head toward the women’s restroom and a woman with a headscarf and robes pointed me in the other direction. I was wearing a muscle shirt and long shorts. Of course I didn’t belong in the same bathroom as her! In Turkey, suddenly, I was a man. I think it helped that I was with my brother – we were bonding, he was referring to me as his “brother” as opposed to “sibling,” which is what he used to say, and I didn’t correct him. I just let myself sit with this new label, see how it felt.
I went swimming with just swim trunks on! At first, I just did this very briefly, so as not to get my t-shirt wet (I had already taken my wet swimming tank-top off and had spontaneously decided to go back in the water). My brother was preoccupied with a problem with our rental car, and although other swimmers were around, I decided to just wing it. This was definitely new – previously, I had always held that getting top surgery made me so much more comfortable in my body, but not nearly comfortable enough to go without a shirt in public. Additionally, I’m not totally happy with my results (surgery was a year and 3 months ago), and until I get revisions, I definitely wouldn’t do something like that. Guess I changed my mind!
Once I’d done it the one time, I did it again when my brother and I went for a night swim in the Aegean Sea. I just wasn’t sure about him taking a close look at it, although, we were constantly within tight quarters, and I changed shirts in front of him with no problems.
“ONCE THIS TOPLESS THING HAD BEEN BLOWN APART, I WAS ALL IN.”
And then, we went to a Turkish bath! Once this topless thing had been blown apart, I was all in. When he first suggested it, as a last minute detour on our way back to Istanbul, I first hesitated. I asked him to tell me as much as he could about what it would be like. It is segregated by gender. Some people are just wrapped in a towel or a bathrobe, hanging out. I guess I was picturing this scene from Seinfeld where all these businessmen were sitting around in a sauna. And I wasn’t so sure about that. But, it ended up not being like that at all. This one in particular is fed by a natural hot spring, and it has a fairly large sized pool plus one more like a hot tub, and little alcoves with running hot water where you bring soaps in and literally take a Turkish bath. It had been built with marble. There were dads with sons with floaty toys – people of all ages. Everyone was wearing long swim trunks. An older gentleman kept taking exaggerated running starts and was diving right into the center of the 5 foot deep pool, making me laugh. At first, I felt apprehensive about being so close to other people with a chest that is somewhat uneven and has messed up nipples. But there’s no doubt that it’s a male chest, and no one was phased by my presence at all. It felt surprisingly liberating, this sense of community and brotherhood among men that in general I don’t feel that I get to be a part of.
Now that I’m back in America, I’m back in the women’s restrooms and I’m back to my tank tops while swimming, at least for now. The Turkey trip was a place and a time – an amazingly noteworthy experience along my gender journey, and really, I have my brother to thank for that!