• Joan Westenberg reflects on the challenges of travelling the world as a transgender woman. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The challenges go beyond simply arranging hotels and attempting to find and curate the best Instagram stories.
Joan Westenberg

17 Oct 2019 - 8:52 AM  UPDATED 15 Oct 2021 - 12:11 PM

A few years ago, I was in Malaysia, staying in Georgetown with my then partner. We were in love with the country, in the way that tourists fall in love with places they've visited and experienced and yet never truly seen. We would spend hours wandering through markets, eating the incredible food, meeting the beautiful people of Penang and eventually relaxing poolside without a care in the world.

It was a trip we'd taken before, and with every visit we grew more attached to the country. Although we'd found Kuala Lumpur to be too large of a city for our tastes, every region we visited was breathtaking. At the time, I was living as a man, having yet to come out to the world and begin transitioning.

Several weeks ago, I began making plans for my first trip overseas, post transition, post becoming Joan. One of my friends had suggested returning to Malaysia as a woman, and taking some time to recuperate in a place that I loved. She was dismayed to learn that Malaysia criminalises transgender people and transgender expression. Malaysia I explained, was a place that I would now feel barred from enjoying in the way that I once had. Or enjoying at all.

The truth is, there are many places throughout the world where a transgender or queer traveller is going to find themselves in hot water. There are more than 10 countries in the world where it is illegal to be transgender, and dozens more where our rights may be under threat.

You don't have the luxury of operating on autopilot, as a trans person. Your mind is always working, questioning and calculating your safety. 

Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Brunei, Myanmar, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Malawi, South Sudan, Oman and Gambia are out of the question. These are places where my existence has been criminalised, where my decision to travel could have dire consequences.

Even in countries where who I am is not explicitly illegal, local laws banning homosexuality can in fact serve as a blanket ban on transgender people or track records of violence against transgender people may reflect a non-legal but very real crisis. There may also  be laws that infringe on my rights and safety tangentially or on a smaller yet still serious and dangerous level.

In the United States for example, I’m unsure of my safety. With transgender rights increasingly in the sights of conservative lobby groups and repeatedly attacked and infringed upon, I find myself hesitant to risk a visit. Many states have enacted or attempted to enact anti-trans legislation ruling over our safe access to bathrooms. The threat has reached a level serious enough that the UK's foreign office has issued travel warnings for members of the LGBTIQA+ community travelling to America.

If you don't fit into norms of heterosexuality and you are decidedly not cis-gender, your challenges go beyond simply arranging hotels and attempting to find and curate the best Instagram stories.

My single most pressing priority is looking after my personal safety in environments where I might find myself in danger of harassment, intimidation or even violence. I have a passion for travel but am becoming increasingly aware of the limitations enforced onto my world by who I am has been one of the sharper edges of my transition.

You don't have the luxury of operating on autopilot, as a trans person. Your mind is always working, questioning and calculating your safety. Travelling is just one example of this.

I will travel again. I don't think it would be possible to stop me. And when I do, I have thought about going back to Nepal. A country of ancient mountains and incredible stories, a country that has experienced change and transformation and hardship and a country that captivated me the first time I walked through the streets of Pokhara.

Nepal is a progressive country when it comes to queer rights, with LGBTIQA+ people's safety and protection enshrined in their constitution, even down to the recognition of a third gender. When I think about how much of the world I still have to see, and about how many places out there are waiting to welcome me with love and acceptance, it gives me a sense of hope and anticipation. But it will always be tempered by a sense of caution.

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