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Traveling while trans: How some state laws make airport checkpoints much more difficult

You may have heard a transgender woman's struggles to get through a TSA checkpoint at the Orlando, Florida, airport. It's a tragic story of a federal agency acting in a way that's entirely ignorant of transgender people and their basic rights.

But while simple ignorance is its own kind of hurdle when traveling while trans, there's a big legal issue that makes traveling more difficult for trans people: In most states, trans people can't always update state-issued IDs — which are often used to get through airport security — to correctly match their gender identities, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

A map of states that facilitate gender marker changes on IDs.

The gray states in the map above tend to have big hurdles to changing your gender marker. They might, for example, require someone to get a court order confirming he or she went through gender-affirming surgeries — including genital construction — to change a gender marker on a driver's license.

But many trans people don't want or can't afford the surgeries. Some trans people are happy with their bodies as they are, even if they don't fully match expectations about gender. Others might not be able to afford the procedures, which may not be covered by health insurance plans.

So someone can look like and identify as a man or woman, but not get the ID to match that under state law — just because they haven't gone through an invasive, sometimes unaffordable procedure, and obtained a court order to verify it. As a result, only about 21 percent of trans people have been able to change their gender markers on all their IDs, according to HRC.

The federal government has moved more quickly in this field, allowing trans people to more easily update IDs issued by the State Department, such as a passport, and Social Security Administration. (For a full breakdown of state and federal laws, check out the National Center for Transgender Equality's guide.) But many states, as the map shows, remain far behind.

More progressive state laws can help make travel easier — to some extent

Prohibitive state ID laws can create various hurdles for trans travelers. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, airport security may look at the gender marker on a trans person's ID to see if it matches the gender marker on a reservation or boarding pass — and if they don't match, it can cause problems getting through security. A trans traveler who isn't privy to the TSA process, then, could run into a problems just because his or her state-issued ID can't be updated.

Of course, it's entirely possible that even a proper ID wouldn't overcome ignorance. In the case of Shadi Petosky at the Orlando airport, she reportedly explained her situation to the authorities — and they still held her while badgering her with insensitive demands and questions.

In these cases, officials might just need some training and education on the very basics of trans issues, gender identity, and gender expression.

But, barring better training, state laws can make it easier for trans people to properly identify themselves in the first place — and possibly avoid situations like Petosky's.