Nonbinary airline passengers ask: What’s gender got to do with it?

Nonbinary airline passengers ask: What’s gender got to do with it?

A person begins the process of filling out a passport application with an “X” gender marker, at their home in Alexandria, Virginia, on April 11, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
A person begins the process of filling out a passport application with an “X” gender marker, at their home in Alexandria, Virginia, on April 11, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

In late May, chef Silver Cousler flew to Miami from Asheville, North Carolina, to have a “last hurrah” party before getting married and a new restaurant opening. While booking the flight, Cousler, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronoun “they,” felt like they had “a split-personality disorder” when the Delta Air Lines website required them to choose either “male” or “female.”

Cousler is used to filling out forms using their legal name and gender, which they no longer associate with. Sometimes it can cause problems: Once, at airport security, they realised they had not booked with their legal name and had to head back to the check-in desk to verify their identity. But providing gender in order to purchase a ticket can feel like an odd and sometimes invasive step. “I think a gender identifier is really strange to me at this point,” Cousler said.

For nonbinary and transgender travellers, it is a time of patchwork progress for broader gender inclusion. In the United States, the federal government has taken steps to recognise more gender identities, while most airlines are yet to implement change. Since April 11, US citizens have been able to select a nonbinary gender marker, “X,” when applying for a passport. The process only requires checking the box and does not require medical certificates, court documents or other paperwork; the gender chosen for the passport does not need to match the person’s other documentation.

For travellers who identify as transgender or who do not conform to traditional gender roles, having more inclusive options is a recognition of who they are as people. Surveys have shown that having their pronouns respected leads to better mental health for nonbinary people, especially young people.

“This is a simple, clear step many airlines should be taking,” said Keisha Williams, director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Workplace Equality Program. “All airline passengers deserve to fly comfortably without fear of discrimination or being misgendered.”

Yet some travellers have expressed frustration that although they can now hold a nonbinary passport, and despite the airlines’ support of LGBTQI+ initiatives such as Pride Month, only two major US airlines currently offer options other than male or female when booking flights.

United Airlines was the first major US carrier to add a nonbinary option for passenger bookings in March 2019. “United is determined to lead the industry in LGBTI+ inclusivity,” said the airline’s chief customer officer, Toby Enqvist, with the announcement. This came a month after the International Air Transport Association and Airlines for America, two trade groups that represent most of the world’s largest airlines, announced new guidance on how members could include nonbinary gender options by adding “undefined” and “undisclosed” to their booking systems. This new standard helps ensure that passengers’ information is stored uniformly across each airline’s system.

These standards are not binding and are up to each carrier to choose to adopt. American Airlines, the only other major US carrier so far to offer nonbinary gender options, updated its booking systems in December.

Delta Air Lines, which was in the news in January when a mother couldn’t book a ticket for her nonbinary child, is on track to add more inclusive gender options later this year, according to an airline spokesperson. Alaska Airlines said it expects to offer nonbinary options late this year, and Hawaiian Airlines said it will follow when the airline switches over to a new reservations system next year. Southwest Airlines said in 2019 that it was working on new gender options but has not given a time frame and did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In the US, gender is a required data field for flight bookings. The requirement was set by the Transport Security Administration in 2009 as part of its Secure Flight program, an initiative that arose from the 9/11 Commission. This enabled the agency to use additional passenger information, which included gender, in later stages of screening to differentiate passengers from people on federal watch lists, such as the No Fly list.

This year, the TSA announced changes to its policy to be more gender inclusive. It updated its standard operating procedure in February to no longer use gender to validate identification at checkpoints and has also introduced the “X” (unspecified) and “U” (undisclosed) gender markers in applications for TSA PreCheck, its prescreening program. Robert Langston, a TSA spokesperson, said the agency is “committed to ensuring all travelers are treated with respect and dignity” and that it recognizes the concerns of transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming travelers about security screening procedures.

When writer Isle McElroy was flying to New York from Bangor, Maine, in March, a TSA agent asked “pink or blue,” referring to the buttons the officer presses when passengers pass through the body scan, which currently uses gender-specific standards for its security checks. McElroy chose blue for male because it seemed the most convenient at the moment. “It’s always extremely anxious for me as I have to take a false version of myself,” McElroy said. The TSA said it hopes to start updating its scanners to no longer be gender-specific later this year.

Although many international airlines are not required to gather gender data during bookings, some carriers still require the selection of honorific titles such as Mr or Ms on their websites and don’t include a gender-neutral alternative like Mx. (pronounced “mix”), or a blank option. One exception is Air Canada, which released a new reservations system in 2020 that included nonbinary honorifics. Air New Zealand has a Mx. title available but still only offers male or female in its optional gender field. The airline is looking to add an “undisclosed” option, according to a spokesperson.

British Airways announced in 2019 that it was adopting nonbinary options but has not yet updated its system. (It does offer viscount and viscountess titles — according to British society chronicler Debrett’s, there are currently 115 viscounts.) KLM expects to have nonbinary options in 2023, and Air France will have them available “soon,” according to Arturo Diaz, a spokesperson for both airlines.

Although Australia issued its first “X”-gendered passport in 2003, none of its major carriers — Virgin Australia, Qantas, Jetstar — have Mx. options available.

In March, Jinghua Qian, a writer who lives in Melbourne, Australia, was asked to appear on a panel at the Sydney Opera House on the subject of nonbinary gender. Qian was told by an event programmer responsible for arranging their flight that there was no “Mx.” option on Virgin Australia’s online booking systems.

“The reason I was particularly incensed by it was because at the same time, it was Mardi Gras in Sydney,” said Qian, referring to the annual Pride parade. The airline had just held its annual Pride Flight, which includes drag performances onboard. “I think that was the last straw for me,” Qian said. “They want the pink dollar so much.” Virgin Australia did not respond to requests for comment.

Third-party travel sites, which sell airfares, among other travel bookings, say they are hamstrung when it comes to offering more gender options for flights, because their systems need to match the airlines’. “Unfortunately, until airlines in the majority have reflected this in the information they require in their booking fields, we are forced to request only male or female options,” said Carol Barnes, a spokesperson for Kiwi.com, an online travel agency. This sentiment was also conveyed by representatives of Booking.com, the Expedia group (which includes Orbitz, Hotwire and Travelocity) and Priceline, who all expressed support for airlines to update their own systems.

These rigid booking systems can feel alienating for nonbinary and transgender travelers who can feel regularly excluded or sidelined. McElroy is disheartened by the airlines’ lack of gender inclusivity, seeing it as indicative of problems with the whole flying process, so has not bothered to file for a new passport with an “X” marker. “Right now, because I don’t feel like I’m going to be accepted or treated as myself either way, part of me is like, ‘Why even go through it?’” McElroy said.


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