The ‘Trans Tax’: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Leaving My House

To avoid U.S. airport security, I'll drive to a nearby Canadian airport and depart from there. That's gas, mileage, money for parking, and fear.

Traveling through a post-9/11 world while ambiguously brown has always meant a curious sort of luck when it comes to winning the random selection-and-arbitrary-detention lottery. Scott Olson/Getty Images

So, want to hear a funny story about being trans?

I recently had top surgery. That’s an umbrella term for a few surgical options, common among transgender men, that are focused on the shape of their chest. So I had top surgery, and after three weeks off work, I came back to the office. Everything was pretty normal, except that I’d been instructed to thoroughly moisturize my nipples several times a day. I work typical office hours, and there’s no getting around doing this at least once during the work day.

I don’t want to do this in the men’s room. It has two bathroom stalls, of the type where you can vaguely see the shape of what someone’s up to behind the closed door. If I were to be diligently rubbing my nipples in there, any errant co-worker who wandered in would get a pretty decent, possibly alarming view. We’re an open-plan workplace, and I don’t have a private office door to close. I don’t want to do this in a conference room, because all our conference rooms have at least one clear glass wall. Enough said.

After a couple days of privately agonizing over this dilemma, I made a breakthrough discovery: locker rooms in the basement. Our office building has a room down there with no windows, one medium-sized mirror, two treadmills, and a weight machine. Or, to some, a “gym.” This necessitates locker rooms, and the locker rooms contain one bathroom stall, several lockers, and two shower stalls. Shower rooms, really. Door, lock. No peeking. Problem solved.

Until I realized that a non-negligible percentage of the population of my office building has also discovered the basement locker room and has been using it for another clandestine purpose: their long, leisurely, midday poops.

Now, far be it from me to begrudge someone their private bathroom necessities. However, this created a tension for both me and the poopers. If I were to be there at the same time as a co-worker, then not only would he know that I know that he’s a secret basement pooper, but he would see me emerge from the shower room, clearly not having showered, with oddly well-moisturized hands. We would never be able to speak to each other again, ever in our lives.

And that is the story of how I came to chart the timing of my co-workers’ bowel movements in order to moisturize my nipples in peace.

Hilarious, right? Here’s another one: I’m terrified that I’ll never see my mother again. That’s because she’s Filipina and lives in the Philippines. I’m Filipino-American, I live in the United States, and I’m bone-deep afraid of traveling through a U.S. airport.

My family means everything to me. My parents are the smartest people I know, no matter how badly curated their Facebook pages may be, and they taught me to be clever and kind. I know that it is agonizing to go years without seeing them. And I know that when transgender people interact with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), awful things are done to us. Not everyone, not every time. But often enough that it’s typical; it only takes a scroll through the always-active #travelingwhiletrans tag on Twitter to see that.

The possibilities, should I fly round trip from the United States to the Philippines and back again, are these: everything goes fine, but I am justifiably terrified of being publicly assaulted and degraded; I am, in fact, publicly assaulted and degraded; either of the above, plus I’m racially profiled. Traveling through a post-9/11 world while ambiguously brown has always meant a curious sort of luck when it comes to winning the random selection-and-arbitrary-detention lottery.

And here’s the kicker, something I’ve come to accept since coming out. When it comes to my personal safety, I’m absolutely a coward. I have no interest in living dangerously. I play video games on casual mode. Not even “normal” mode, no, I go one step below that. I drive the speed limit. I take the elevator down nine floors to the basement to deal with a medical necessity because I’d rather not risk the unlikely-but-possible scenario wherein a co-worker decides today’s the day he’s going to bash a queer in the men’s room. And so, it is my instinct to avoid contact with the TSA.

When we talk about how things like the TSA’s gross misconduct when dealing with transgender travelers, and about “bathroom bills” that require people to use facilities in public buildings corresponding with the gender on their birth certificate (which is a legal impossibility in some states), what we are talking about is whittling away at trans people’s ability to live a normal, fulfilling life. The weight of the law behind discrimination lends legitimacy to everyday acts of bigotry, and so the everyday becomes fraught with anxiety.

If I cannot use a bathroom, then I will think twice before attending any sort of public event. Going to the movies, attending a concert, wandering through a museum, eating dinner out once in awhile. If I cannot travel through an airport for fear of assault, then I can’t see my mother. I lose a whole country. I can’t see my aunt, my cousins, their kids, or the family dogs. I can’t see my mom’s awful goat. She loves that thing. It’s a monster. I miss that goat, but only for the way it makes my mother smile.

So here’s what I’ve been thinking. It’s a ten-hour drive from me to Toronto. From there, it’s about 24 hours of travel to Manila. That’s mileage and gas back and forth to Canada, then parking for the duration of my trip. So the conservative estimate on trans tax for the luxury of taking such a trip without fear of being publicly groped by a TSA agent: 20 hours’ driving time, a couple extra border crossings, and $200. I’m lucky, in this instance: I hold a U.S. passport and I’m unlikely to be read as Muslim, which in the current political environment means that a land border crossing is a less fraught option for me.

Canada is, of course, not the utopia of universal human rights that U.S. hyperbole frequently makes it out to be. There doesn’t right now exist a country on Earth where it is as safe to be transgender as it is to be cisgender. There are, however, a range of places safer than a U.S. airport.

I’d also like to visit my brother in Washington, D.C. He’s the good son, the one who produced a grandchild, and she, like the goat, is a monster, but she, like the goat, is also deeply beloved. I could drive for 13 hours to reach them. I like driving, but prefer to do it while awake, and so I would split that trip into two days. What I might save on airfare, I’d spend on a motel and gas. Trans tax for the pleasure of seeing my niece: Four days of driving. Given I only have a week of vacation available at my job, we’d need to fit a lot of bonding into a short period.

Or I can roll the dice on being publicly assaulted by a government agent. I can let that fear shrink my life smaller and smaller.

Last funny, true story about being trans: It turns out we’re normal people who want to feel safe. We want to spend time with the people we love, and the goats about whom we are ambivalent. And you can try, and you have tried, to regulate us out of existence, to chip away at the everyday necessities of our lives until we are spending our time plotting arcane routes to the nearest safe bathroom or Canadian port of egress. And I do mean you, because while these policies are enacted by just a few, they are allowed to exist by virtue of collective apathy and inaction. But we’ll still be here, even the cowards like me. And if anyone doesn’t like that, they can fuck right off.