Why I’m Grateful for Global Entry, as a Gender Non-Binary Traveler

Probing questions and unwanted pat downs can mean extra stress for LGBTQ travelers. Here’s how TSA’s Trusted Traveler programs can unexpectedly help.

Four passport express machines at an airport.

Global Entry can be a safe haven for travelers who fear getting misgendered and flagged by airport security.

Photo by James Tourtellotte/CBP

“What’s that?” a TSA officer barked, touching my shirt near the shoulder.

“My boobs,” I spat back.

I am queer and gender expansive, which means I don’t think of myself as being female (my assigned gender) or male, but as gender-free. This has also meant I’ve been misgendered and subject to pat downs in airports from JFK to Seattle. At Newark Airport, I was forced to out myself to a TSA officer who demanded to know why my wife and I approached him at the same time when our passports indicated that we didn’t share a last name.

Until 2022, airport body scanners coded travelers on binary gender. Each time I flew, the TSA screener operating the body scanner (technically, Advanced Imaging Technology) had a 50-50 chance of assigning me the wrong gender—which meant that I was immediately flagged for a physical pat down and potentially outed to fellow travelers.

The stress of anticipating whether I would “pass” the scanners causes extreme anxiety for me—and for many LGBTQ travelers. I felt trapped in a dysphoric and humiliating system with no way out. A software update and AI assist in 2023 claimed to make the scanning process genderless for travelers. But it was not perfect; trans and nonbinary travelers—or really, anyone whose body doesn’t neatly fall into a “male” or female” figure—continue to fail body scans.

I applied for Global Entry, one of the TSA’s Trusted Traveler Programs, in 2023. If approved, I’d also automatically qualify for TSA PreCheck, as I would be considered a “known traveler.” Applying was a courageous choice given my dread of airport authorities; my screening interview would take place at JFK. The catalyst for my decision was a too-short layover at Miami International Airport while en route to Costa Rica with family. As a kid, I’d endured too many traumatic Florida vacations; I didn’t want to risk missing our connecting flight and getting stuck in Miami—especially with the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law in effect.

In the days before my Global Entry interview, I scoured Reddit for advice. What would I be asked by the officer in charge of approving my application? What if they misgendered me, or got suspicious about my 1099 income, or grilled me on what countries I’d visited to catch me in a lie? Could my application be denied?

The hardest part of getting Global Entry, it turned out, was navigating construction detours at JFK. I followed a maze of signs that promised to lead to the Terminal 4 Parking Lot but instead, routed me onto the Van Wyck Expressway. With our interview time fast approaching, I parked in a different lot. My wife and I raced through the terminals and checked in with minutes to spare.

We were called back one at a time. The agent asked me to confirm my home address. He directed me to look into the camera and took a photo. Then he handed me a document sleeve with information about Global Entry and said, “Have a good day.”

I figured $20 a year was a fair price to pay to join the short VIP line every time I reentered the States—and as a bonus, through PreCheck, to leave my shoes on and liquids in my luggage. I never imagined the real impact being a Trusted Traveler would have on me.

En route to Costa Rica, we were ushered through metal detectors rather than the dreaded scanners (a TSA spokesperson confirmed that travelers with PreCheck are more likely to encounter metal detectors rather than Advanced Imaging Technology). Landing in Miami on our way home, I approached the Passport Control area with my passport and Global Entry card in hand. I scanned my passport, pressed my fingertips to the sensors, and looked up into the kiosk’s camera. The machine beeped, verifying my identity.

“Lindsey?” an officer called out as I walked away. I turned, my body clenched. I was accustomed to having unpleasant interactions with airport officers and was readying myself for another.

He visually confirmed my identity, smiled, and said, “Welcome home.”

I never used to be a nervous traveler. The invasive body scanners turned me into one by continually flagging my body as a threat. A system intended to safeguard air travelers left me tonguing naturopathic stress relief tablets and decompressing postscan with an overpriced airport beer. TSA screeners’ blunt questions made me ashamed and critical of my gender expansive identity; why wouldn’t I “dress like a girl” and avoid the harassment, like gender-conforming folks had been telling me to do my whole life?

Global Entry gave me a gift far more valuable than the price tag. It allowed me to travel on my terms, without needing to mask my identity for the screeners or engage in fawning behavior, smiling at officers so as to appear feminine and unthreatening.

It’s counterintuitive to trust the agencies that interrogate us for presenting as our authentic selves, but thus far, it works. Since that Costa Rica trip, I’ve taken three domestic flights. Each time, there have been no body scanners, no pat downs, and no questions. In other words, my travels were blissfully uneventful.

Lindsey Danis is a freelance writer with a focus on travel, food, and LGBTQ+ topics. Lindsey’s work can be found at Afar, Condé Nast Traveler, Fodor’s, Eater, and elsewhere. Lindsey is currently working on a book about queer travel and also enjoys hiking and kayaking near her Hudson Valley home.
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