October, 2010 / Author:

New security protocols affecting international flights were recently introduced worldwide. Most of the changes would appear at first glance to have little bearing on the GLBT set.  Upon closer inspection, the introduction of additional security measures, including body scanning technology, more ID check-stops and random searches, raise the stakes for the queer community.

Helen Kennedy, president of Egale Canada, says every security officer has their own level of prejudice and bias. That creates a “legitimate concern” about the implications of having to deal with more of them. Kennedy is most concerned about privacy, and the potential for being outed in a less than welcoming environment. 

This is especially true of trans travellers, she says. Body scanning technology, currently operating in all major Canadian cities, could reveal a body that doesn’t jive perfectly with a passport.  The questions is – how will security personnel react to a trans traveller? “We should be questioning the training being given to security personnel,” she says.

Training has always been an issue when queer travelers cross the border.  Mike Law, a Winnipeg lawyer and longstanding member of the gay community, is always cautious when dealing with American customs and immigration officials. “That’s the only place that I sometimes closet myself,” he said.

GLBT travellers may face unwanted scrutiny

A few years ago, on a flight to San Francisco from Winnipeg via Toronto, Law was told by an Air Canada representative that he and his partner should only fill out one customs card, given that they lived together and hence should be considered family. But upon arrival at the airport, he and his partner were given a cold reception by an American customs official who refused to acknowledge their relationship. 

While Canadian respondents often expressed concerns about price/cost, other criteria had more influence for them when selecting a destination.
Community Marketing, Inc. 2005
68% felt that climate was very important them
62% wanted to be sure a destination was gay- friendly
60% said safety was an important concern
57% choose destinations because of the local culture.

After several minutes of subjecting them to circular arguments about the definition of the word “partner,” the official said, “You’re coming to the U.S …  we don’t recognize that here.” The official then sent the Canadian pair to the back of the line to undergo further security checks.  

Law’s demeaning experience happened before the latest round of security measures was implemented, but in his opinion, “those issues haven’t changed.” Furthermore, “the authorities are probably profiling people from certain suspect countries,” he said. 

According to the Transportation Security Administration’s website, anyone “who holds a passport issued by or is travelling from or through nations that are state sponsors of terrorism or other countries of interest will be required to go through enhanced screening.”

That could mean that a queer traveller who is a visible minority with landed immigrant status in Canada could face a greater threat of being outed or subjected to extra checks.

It may not be fair, but that is the bitter reality for many in the queer community, says Karen Busby, a law professor at the University of Manitoba. “I can’t imagine there being anything that they should worry about any more than anyone else.”

Egale Canada offers online resources for queer travellers at www.egale.ca.  

– Miles McEnery is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer. To comment on this or any other article in Outwords, write to letters@outwords.ca.

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