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Traveling as a Trans Man

Apr 2, 2024

Travelling as a Trans Man

Finnegan Shepard

Travel has been a huge part of my life, from a very young age. By the time I was nine, I had been to ten countries. By the time I was nineteen, I had been to over fifty, on almost every continent. When I was a kid, I was read as a tomboy. In adolescence and my early twenties, I’m not sure exactly how I was read–I wore boy’s/men’s clothing, and depending on the country I was in, there were varying dynamics between myself and the locals. When I began to medically transition, I had this hopelessly optimistic notion that I would be able to time my social, legal, and medical transitions perfectly, so there would be no friction between them. For example, I would get my new ID right after (but not before) top surgery, and I would time top surgery such that I would have taken T for just the right amount of time: my voice would have dropped and I would have developed some facial hair. Of course, as trans men, we don’t get to time these things, or choose how they time themselves. As it goes, I ended up quite lucky. I began testosterone in September of 2019, and got top surgery in April of 2020 (after month long delays from COVID-19 lockdowns). That meant that I transitioned in a kind of cocoon, away from the public eye, and certainly away from travelling.

But I always knew that travelling would remain an integral part of my life. In fact, it was this knowledge that prompted me to do my fateful google search that would lead to building Both&--when I typed in trans man swimwear, I was imagining myself on some beautiful beach, once lockdown had ended and my chest had healed. But as borders opened up again and travelling became possible, this time as Finn, with a new passport, there were considerations to take into account. Was I comfortable travelling anywhere, the way I had been prior to transition? What about bathrooms? Should I get an STP (stand to pee) device and learn how to use that?

This essay is not so much informational as a story of my own journey. There are plenty of great articles out there with tips and facts about different countries and their policy and cultural relationship to transgender people. If that’s what you’re looking for, I encourage you to go elsewhere, because you won’t find it here. But if you want to hear one person’s story–and especially if you want to hear a positive story–then you are in the right place.

View from airplane window, overlooking onto blue skies, mountains and clouds


Traveling to the UK, Hawaii, and Mexico as a Trans Man

The first international travel I did as a trans man was to the UK. This was work for Both&: we had just launched our first collection, and we were doing a pop up at Dalston Superstore in London, with much of the core community we had built over the last year. The UK is a second home to me–I spent a good deal of my childhood there, went to graduate school there, and have a strong community there that I always stay with when I visit. I remember handing over my passport at customs and sort of holding my breath, not sure whether the name change comes up in the system, and if so, how the custom’s agent would react. To my surprise and relief, if anything did come up, then the agent did not react at all. He simply stamped my passport and handed it back to me. This remains a question I have to this day–does a gender change on legal identification show up in the system? I was pulled over for speeding about a year later in the enormous empty space between southern Colorado and New Mexico, and similarly, was holding my breath for the officer’s reaction. If he saw anything, it didn’t impact his behaviour or treatment of me at all. This leads me to one of three conclusions:

  1. Gender change does not show up in the records of official identification,
  2. If it does, then the officials who are viewing it have had surprisingly good training and/or just don’t care very much, or
  3. I have been extremely lucky.

I honestly don’t know which of the above is true, but I am happy to report that this has been my experience.

While in the UK, I always stay with friends, and I’m not really doing any sight seeing or public ‘outings.’ This is always my preferred mode of travel–make it about people, and nature. Because of my preference around travelling in this way, there are less opportunities for my identity to become a potential issue. My friends obviously accept me, and nature doesn’t care how I pee. In contrast, if I loved to go clubbing, for instance, I might have had more negative experiences, but that’s just not something I am naturally drawn to.

My subjective experience of the UK was that while it isn’t as overtly trans friendly as some of the urban centers in the US (with gender neutral toilets springing up in NYC and LA, etc.), London in particular is quite used to a juxtaposition to more conservative or ‘proper’ presentation, and a history of punk, rebel, or otherwise ‘outsider’ presentation. London is very queer in its own way, and coupled with the general British disposition to not comment on other people, I didn’t personally experience any transphobia, uncomfortable or dangerous moments while being there. (Again, this is just my experience, not a state issued travel recommendation).

The next place I travelled to was Hawaii. The key memory I have there as it pertains to gender was the experience of being naked in front of strangers for the first time since transitioning. My partner and I were staying very close to a nude beach (we didn’t know it when we arrived, but it became immediately apparent). The first day I kept my swim trunks on. The beach was quite long, with probably a couple hundred people on it, and the majority were completely naked, but a few were wearing some kind of swimwear. The second day, though, my envy of how good it would feel to be naked took over. I definitely experienced a wave of adrenaline as a I walked, naked, from the towel to the water (and back), but no one said anything. I’m not sure how I was read or whether people even looked at or noticed my body in particular. I found this experience particularly poignant, as it stood in contrast to how it feels to me to be in a trans body much of the time. While I am now in a place where I feel extremely at ease and happy in my body, there is always a sense, for me, of being other. In day to day life this doesn’t come up much or at all, but nudity is a space where it does. To be able to feel anonymous, just one of many, on that beach, was super empowering.

The last place I’ll cover in this essay (if you enjoy the travel narratives let me know, and I can continue sharing them), was my trip to Mexico with friends for my 30th birthday. Again, I had no issues with identification at the border, and we spent the majority of our time in the large house we had rented together, so I didn’t have a lot of experiences of being out, using public restrooms, etc. My partner did get us massages at a local spa, and I did wonder how my body would be read/treated there, but no issues came up.


How my Attitude Around Gender Shifts how I am Read

Overall, as you can see from the three stories here, I have had an overwhelmingly positive experience travelling. I don’t want to make any claims about these places and how trans-friendly they are at large, and I also think it’s really important to acknowledge that 1) I think I am read as male the majority of the time, and 2) that when I travel I am predominantly in places/with people that already know me, which minimizes my exposure to potential transphobia. However, I would also say that I benefit from what I think of as a virtuous, self-fulfilling cycle. It is unfortunately the case that humans can sniff out insecurity or fear in others, whereas what we present as normal the rest of the world tends to ‘take’ as normal. I have certainly been in spaces and around people who are not trans-friendly, but by carrying myself with confidence, by not even allowing the question of whether I deserve to be there enter my mind, I can feel the way I am read shift. It isn’t questioned. Now, again, this is not a fool proof statement, and I am certainly not saying that merely your attitude will determine your treatment in the world. It’s impossible to calculate exactly the impact. But it’s also silly to not acknowledge how much this has impacted the way I walk through the world and interact with strangers. A kind of instantaneous, gut level calculation often goes on in these scenarios. If I walk into a bathroom and someone glances at me, probably noticing my height, there’s an option. I can lean into my fear around that glance or I can look back with the calm, internal confidence that I have every right to be there. When I do the latter, the person who looks always looks away.


Final Thoughts on Traveling as a Trans Man

"Transition as an opening, not a closing." Transmasc person reaching up to touch flowers on branches

Travel is something that is really important to me. It’s been a core value since I was young, and transitioning was never going to change that. Are there countries that I would hesitate to go to, or maybe even avoid entirely? Absolutely. But overarchingly, most places I want to go still feel exciting rather than scary. Carrying this into an even larger life philosophy, one of the most important things for me about transitioning was for it to feel like an opening rather than a closing. I don’t want to turn anything down, to feel barred from experiences because of being trans. Instead, I want to live in its hum, in the magic of its positionality, in all the ways in which it allows me to have a richer, fuller lived experience. Travel is a beautiful part of that, and something I plan on continuing to nurture throughout my life.