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Nightmare at Heathrow - The Iron-On Line
October 10th, 2012
12:03 pm


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Nightmare at Heathrow
I'm not in America.

The immediate cause of this is that my passport was in my pocket when I got caught in a rainstorm, and the water faded the photograph so that it's no longer recognisably me. In normal circumstances, I might have a few things to say about the practice of issuing passports that can be rendered completely unfit for purpose by a predictable piece of British weather, but I have bigger things on my mind just now.

Following advice from the internet (in hindsight, not the best of moves) I presented my passport, plus my photocard driving licence, to the Delta folk at Heathrow. They flagged it up as a problem straight away and began consulting with various supervisors, while the clock ticked down to the scheduled departure time. At this point, my worst fear was that I wouldn't be allowed to fly, but they weren't going to turn me away until the US immigration people had pronounced on me.

At one point, the check-in guy said he wouldn't be able to accept my suitcase and I would need to take it as cabin baggage. This would mean throwing out all my toiletries because of the liquid restrictions, which was another source of great stress for a while. My lube, in a 50ml container, would have survived the restrictions, but I'd have needed to take it through security in a clear plastic bag. On the other hand, carrying Pina Colada flavoured lube through security would have been a walk in the park compared to what followed.

They finally decided they should accept my suitcase provisionally and have Homeland Security meet me at the gate. All the Delta and Heathrow officials I'd spoken to treated me like a passenger who, through no fault of my own, was causing a problem and would probably not be able to fly. All I got from them was courtesy and respect. The Homeland Security people, in contrast, treated me like a criminal. Their attitude seemed to be that I was definitely guilty of something, and they would harangue me until I told them what it was.

I explained once again that my passport had got wet in a rainstorm. The guy asked me a few standard immigration-type questions, like what was the purpose of my trip and where would I be staying, which I answered as best I could. He jumped from one subject to another rapidly, and seemed impatient with complicated answers, both of which made me even more nervous than I already had been.

They quickly decided I would not be allowed to fly, but the nightmare wasn't finished. The Homeland Security guy was in full flow, and there was no stopping him. He told me that he didn't believe what I'd said. I protested that it was the truth. He insisted that he didn't believe me, and told me he was going to write a report that would stop me from ever entering the US. He told me to sit and think about what I was going to say next. I have no idea whether this technique works on people who are actually telling lies, but since I was telling the truth all it did was rack up my fear another few notches.

I don't know whether I was suspected of anything in particular or whether they were just throwing accusations randomly in an attempt to work out what specifically I was guilty of - my guilt in general terms being assumed from the start. He implied a couple of times that I planned to run away to the US forever, despite my protests that I have family here. His colleague made a reference to my friends not telling me what to do in this situation, as if to imply I was part of some larger conspiracy. They repeatedly asked me why, if I had nothing to hide, I was so nervous. I was too terrified to point out that their interrogation techniques were by now the biggest factor in my nerves.

At one point, he sat down beside me and asked me if I was trans. I acknowledged that I was, and he said that he found this "story" more believable. I hadn't considered "I'm trans" and "my passport got wet in a rainstorm" to be two different "stories"; I'd forgotten that for some people, failing to mention in your very first sentence that you're trans is classed as deception. He then asked whether I had deliberately damaged my passport to conceal some kind of alteration. Resisting the urge to scream and bolt for the toilets took most of my mental energy, but I told him that I certainly had not.

Later, he asked me whether I had transitioned completely. Explaining to cis people that transition does not work like that is a shitty task at the best of times, and that goes double when it's someone who has so much power. How could I explain the difference between social and medical transition, or between de jure and de facto requirements for a GRC, to someone who had already demonstrated that he would treat any answer more complicated than yes or no as proof of dishonesty? I asked him what he meant, and in classic bullying fashion he just repeated the question with extra emphasis. I told him that I would probably not be able to change my birth certificate as things stood, but that I was legitimately entitled to a male passport.

His attack was now focussed on that little letter M. He appeared to believe that I was not entitled to it based on my surgical status, and that he was a better judge of that than the UK Passport Agency. I told him that I had submitted all the necessary documents, including a letter from my psychiatrist, and been legitimately issued with the passport. He told me that I needed to get another letter and apply again - I have no idea why.

Finally, they asked some more questions about where I'd been planning to stay. I wrote down Lucy's home address in West Virginia, apologising for not being able to remember the zip code. I wrote Lucy's name and her mother's as the people I would be staying with. He misunderstood "that's my friend, and that's her mother" as "that's my mother"; I don't know whether that was another attempt to trip me up or whether he'd just tied up all his brain circuits with cissexism and assumptions of criminality, leaving nothing over for reasoning that two people with the same surname and address are likely related. After that, I can only assume they'd run out of questions to ask. They let me collect my suitcase, safely offloaded from the plane before it left, from the baggage reclaim, returned my passport and driving licence, and let me go on my way.

In this whole nightmare, I have a lot to be grateful to Fluffy for. She talked to me on the phone, calmed me down as much as possible, broke the devastating news to Lucy, suggested I change my dollars back into sterling to afford the train fare home, and arranged for my dad to pick me up at Grantham and take care of me. Without her support, the effect on my emotions would have been far, far worse. Unfortunately there was nothing she could do about the almost stereotypical American arrogance of Homeland Security. Cynically, I wonder if there's anything anyone can do about that.

(8 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:October 10th, 2012 11:30 am (UTC)
I found it incredibly difficult to read this. I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it must have been to live it. Much love, always.
[User Picture]
Date:October 10th, 2012 12:36 pm (UTC)
Bloody hell. And they behave like this in our country?? God help those who get stopped in the USA.

I am so sorry that you had to go through all that and I hope you can recover from the trauma. I don't know if it's possible to complain to anyone in authority here (or even if you feel up to such a struggle) but I hope something can be done.

I hope Lucy gets to come here.

edited for typo

Edited at 2012-10-10 12:37 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:October 10th, 2012 01:15 pm (UTC)
I'm recovering OK - it helps that I have family here to support me. I'm still contemplating writing to my MP, which might be a waste of time but on the other hand might help me feel like I'm doing *something*. And thanks for your support.
Date:October 10th, 2012 01:08 pm (UTC)
*Massive huggles*

I'm really, really sorry you had to go through that. I wish I could apologize for Homeland Security, but honestly, there's not excuse for such treatment. All I can do is apologize as an American who is not happy with the direction her country has taken such things.
[User Picture]
Date:October 10th, 2012 01:16 pm (UTC)
I don't know if it's worth writing to your representatives and pointing out that hey, these are the things that give America a really really bad reputation in the rest of the world?
[User Picture]
Date:October 11th, 2012 05:49 am (UTC)
What a horrible experience! I'd say this goes beyond just contacting representatives - have you heard of change.org? You can start a petition... they've had a lot of success embarrassing organizations into changing their ways. (Though Homeland Security may be beyond shame.) Their UK site is change.org/uk. Disclaimer, my husband works for them.
[User Picture]
From:Mar Figuerola
Date:October 11th, 2012 08:12 am (UTC)
Sorry you have to go throught this. I hope ours is the last generation to have to endure this treatment. One word though: it is people like you who go open and public about being trans that makes people like me, cis and average, happy to accept you. The fact that transition is a possibility, and it is available, and is rewarding for those who feel that's the right thing to do for them, should be taught at schools. The reason I did not transition is because I fell pregnant before I realise I could transition, as well as being in the process of accepting I was bisexual. I guess I'm also "by-gender", and it has been an accident that I love the way motherhood has transformed my body, which did not fit me before I had kids. Do I regret my life? No. Would I have enjoyed it more had I been educated? I am certain I would have made other choices. And for those who say: "but you would not have kids" that's just bullshit. I know lots of trans people who are currently raising kids. Unfortunately some of them are so scared of the possible violent repercussions for them and their families if they were to come out, that they don't come out, not even to their own offspring in case they out them at school and it gets to the other school parents! I respect that. As the ex partner of a trans man our safety depended on him being in the closet.
Date:October 11th, 2012 02:51 pm (UTC)
DHS took me to one side when i flew to Minneapolis last year. They interrogated me for nearly 3 hours about my trip from the UK to the USA.
I was too denied entry, i was put back on a plane and sent back to the UK.

My experience of their attitude was thankfully the opposite of yours.
I got treated kindly, with respect and with good spirits.

They were apologetic that they were inconveniencing me but rules were rules.
I was pissed off but thankful that they were nice to me.

Sorry you had a bad experience. The USA are often overly 'too big for their boots!'

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