First flight

Oakland International Airport, where I departed for my flrst flight as my better half.

Well, I landed in Connecticut Tuesday night (Dec. 14) for the holidays. No big deal; people fly all the time, and most eventually land in one piece, safe and sound. As did this one. My brother Ken picked me up at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks (just north of Hartford, for non-Connecticutians) and dropped me off at my parents’ house.

Big deal here.

My first flight as Fran. As my better half.

But in the end, again, no big deal. Thank God. One more huge hurdle overcome, and that was before I climbed to 39,000 feet.

*****

I didn’t obsess about my first flight as my female self — there’s been enough anxiety on my table already: the constant state of joblessness and uselessness, fear over the Republicans cutting unemployment extensions, the continuing tale of navigating the transition with both my immediate family and my relatives, and a dislocated right ankle that wasn’t healing right after nearly four weeks — but without a doubt I was a little nervous.

Mostly, it had to do with all the TSA bullshit we’ve all had to encounter of late. We’ve all heard the countless tales of everything from harassment to legally sanctioned sexual assault. Of passengers being violated and TSA grunts feeling everything from angry to embarrassed and demeaned. Of subjecting passengers to backscatter scanning machines of dubious degrees of safety, foisted on us by a company in which former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff has a big stake.

The news story might have cycled out after Thanksgiving, but the threat is still code orange in my mind. Especially since the news sharks have gone to find some other fresh meat on which to feast.

I had started thinking about life as my Frannie self, and the prospect of flying as such, when I attended a workshop in August of last year at the San Francisco LGBT Center. The workshop, presented by the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center, was about legally changing your name and gender on documents. Among many things, the attorney (female-to-male) who spoke to us explained that the tightening of TSA rules last year required that the name on the boarding pass exactly match the one on our ID.

That was incentive enough to make me change the name on my license, as I always despised Francis. I hated using it on anything, and my government was now forcing me to have to write the name on my airline reservations, where I had been able to get away with Fran up to that point. I was planning to change the name legally regardless of where I was going with the gender trip. But since I could get both the name and gender changed on the license at the same time, it didn’t make sense to actually go through with it until I knew where I was going with the gender thang.

But the workshop did get me thinking about what it would be like to fly as Frannie, as I would have to eventually do it. And the TLC attorney told us they had been working with the TSA to ensure smoother sailing for trans passengers by fostering an awareness and understanding of us.

Knowing that, and flying out of the Bay Area to come back to Connecticut, I felt a degree of comfort about being able to fly when the time came. But not entirely. The TSA people tend to be inconsistent and arbitrary about interpreting the laws — I encountered that firsthand in my boy life — and what if I got some asshole during the screening process who had a bug about freaks like us, or something like that? Not an unreasonable concern in the least.

*****

Around Thanksgiving, I booked my trip home on Southwest. It’s the only airline I’ll fly now. In the nearly seven years I’ve lived in California, it’s the only airline I’ve traveled that has given me no trouble — no problems with me arriving a day before my luggage, like America West/US Airways; no routing me to puddle-jumpers or making me stay overnight because they’re too cheap to roll out a replacement plane at LAX, like American; no making us sit on the tarmac at JFK for over an hour, like American.

And, of course, Southwest’s fares are consistently the cheapest in the business, but it’s more than that. No nickel-and-diming — I can check two bags under 50 pounds for free and be assured they’ll arrive with me, and on top of that, the staff is incredibly helpful and friendly. And usually, my transfer point is Midway in Chicago, and much more often than not, even when I don’t have much time between flights, my connection isn’t that far away in the terminal. They seem to have done about everything in their power to take as much stress out of flying as possible. And they still make a profit.

I had a feeling, with their track record of customer service, that they would be just fine with a trans passenger.

It was 40 bucks cheaper to fly out of Oakland International than SFO, so I decided to try the port less traveled. Besides, one of the ubiquitous Huffington Post slideshows around that time was of the 10 least-busy major airports on the Thanksgiving holiday, and Oakland, Midway and Bradley were all on the list. Plus, I figured it wouldn’t be the zoo that SFO can be, and maybe the Oakland TSA staff was better than some of the ones I encountered at SFO last Christmastime. So Oakland it was.

*****

Right after Thanksgiving, I went to my doctor for my three-month checkup and a hormone shot. Who better to ask about traveling trans than a post-op transsexual?

“Well, I didn’t fly until after I had fully transitioned,” she said.

As I’ve told you all along, every transperson’s story is different …

“You might encounter a little difficulty, since your appearance doesn’t match your license –“

“Nope,” I said. “It’s done.”

“The license? The name? The gender marker?”

“Yep — had it done in September.” I showed her my license. She smiled.

“Well, then, it should be no problem for you. As long as your name and picture match, you shouldn’t have a problem.”

My hormones would have to be packed, though — no way I could carry syringes on board with me. She gave me a letter to carry in case anyone had any questions. And I imagined my fake boobs would have to go in the suitcase as well, along with my waist cincher. The boobs are parakeet seed ($6 a bag at Target) triple-bagged in generic sandwich bags, and would probably arouse suspicion in a scanner. So I made a pair of fake fakes for the trip — toilet paper wadded up skillfully, coated with Scotch tape — which I could slip into my laptop case before going through screening.

*****

My main concern heading into the flight, then, was my ankle. Would I be able to walk in San Francisco or Oakland, period, let alone in one of the two pairs of boots I bought for the trip home? Both pairs, the calf-high ones and the suede ankle boots, have heels.

I hurt the ankle on a Wednesday, 4 1/2 weeks ago from the time I’m writing this. I still don’t know how the hell I did it. It could have been something as mundane as pedaling wrong on the downstroke on my bike. I might have crossed my ankle wrong. Or I stepped the wrong way. But no, smartass, I didn’t do it in heels. At least that would’ve given me an excuse.

But it started feeling uncomfortable that night, really started to tweak the next day, by Friday it was really hurting, and that Saturday and Sunday were pure hell. It was torture just to hobble from one place to another, forget limp.

And me without healthcare. I had considered going to a nearby walk-in clinic, but I had no idea how much it would cost. So this is what it feels like to be a total loser: no job, no worth, no healthcare, and hobbling around on a bad wheel.

And I thought it was a sprain and went about treating it the wrong way. I was taking near-daily Epsom salt baths and using ice packs — ice cubes from the fridge in a Ziploc — to reduce the swelling, taking aspirin, staying off the ankle as much as possible.

But I was also using copious amounts of Ben-Gay and an elastic bandage to wrap it up. Since it was a dislocation and not a sprain, all it did was aggravate the ankle and make my room reek of Ben-Gay for a week.

The magic ingredient, at long last, was ibuprofen. My fabulous housemate Brenda — who’s petite and hot, belying her past as an Army sergeant — told me it was the miracle drug when she was in the military, because it’s an anti-inflammatory. I bought some of the generic variety at Target, but hedged a couple of days because I had read the possible side effects on the box. But a week ago Wednesday, feeling very desperate — and racing against time, with my trip less than a week away — I started taking the pills, combined with the ice packs and the salt baths.

That did the trick. I started feeling the ankle snapping and crackling and popping into place. I had massaged the ankle by hand and also manipulated muscles to see if I could work it back into place. But the one big pop — the turning-point snap that would put everything back into place — wasn’t forthcoming.

Last Saturday morning, 2 1/2 days before I left, I was awake at 5 a.m., popped another ibuprofen, iced the ankle and then tried to get back to sleep. Occasionally, I would move muscles in the hope of the magic snap.

It was 6:20. For some reason, I manipulated muscles I hadn’t tried yet. I tried moving my heel laterally. A stretch once to the left, once to the right …

And a very small pop.

I was awake now.

That was the one. That, after 3 1/2 weeks of torture, was what I was waiting for.

But I had to tell myself to stop playing with the ankle. It was still swollen, and with all it had been through, I still needed to rest it as much as possible. It was still tender.

I stayed off it as much as possible that day. But that night, I tried heels for the first time since the injury, my lowish pair of black patent pumps. The boots were still a little high for me, and I was starting to think the ankle boots I’d wanted to wear were out of the question. I was in discomfort that night at the Landmark, but not unbearable pain. It was encouraging.

The next afternoon, the day before I left, I did my heavy packing, then got dressed for a holiday open house at the home of my friends Jim and Norla. And I decided to push the matter and see if I could walk in a pair of slightly higher heels — since this is the festive time of the year, my candy apple red pumps, with about a 3-inch heel. They lasted about two hours. I ditched them before I went to pick up my friend Heather for coffee at Revue.

I decided I would chance wearing boots for the flight, but I would go with my calf-high pair, since the heels were wider and sturdier. But I needed to get back to heels eventually, as I had a job interview (!!!) lined up for Wednesday afternoon in New Haven — my first since my layoff 21 months ago and my first as Frannie — and I wanted to look styling and be able to walk confidently.

*****

I iced the ankle right up to a couple hours before my friends Jen and Scott picked me up at 7 to go to the train station. I was dressed modestly: black Celtic top, black skirt, gray tights and the boots.

The act of traveling home from Fresno is generally a pain in the ass without being a pain in the ankle to boot.

There are no Southwest flights from Fresno Yosemite International Airport, and it costs a lot more to fly from Fresno than the Bay Area — two years ago, I checked and saw that it would cost $500 more to fly from Fresno on Continental than from Sacramento or the Bay Area. So I take the Amtrak from Fresno, a mile from the house where I’m staying, to San Francisco. Fare is $31 if you book up to a couple days ahead. What’s a three-hour drive takes four to five hours, and there’s no direct train route; you have to transfer to a bus either in Stockton or Emeryville, depending on the trip.

And once I get to San Francisco, it doesn’t make sense to book a hotel, budget aside, since I have to be up around 3 or 4 to get to SFO by 5 so I can get through screenings when TSA opens to catch an early flight. And the BART trains stop running from about 11:30 until 4:30, and  I have too much stuff to schlep around on a Night Owl bus or a streetcar. So what to do?

In this case, I would have to backtrack on BART to the Coliseum station and take a shuttle bus to the airport, and they didn’t start until 5 a.m. And my flight wasn’t until 9:45.

I booked the last train out of Fresno, the 8:18, which was supposed to get me in at 12:30, so that would be less time to kill. I decided to walk to Union Square and to my favorite SF diner, the Lori’s Diner a couple blocks away on Mason, south of Geary, and grab a bite and coffee and see how long I could stay there.

*****

Well, this wasn’t gonna be a comfortable trip. I swung my suitcases onto the train and took an awkward step getting up and on board and felt a harsh pain. Fuck. Not already. But it wasn’t too bad in the long run. There’s still some swelling from the weeks of irritation, and I have to be careful.

I felt the discomfort when we had to schlep our bags across the parking lot in Stockton to the waiting bus, even more so when I climbed aboard. I hadn’t had to worry much about steps on flat land in Fresno. This was discomfort.

But I had to be ready for walking, whether I was ready or not. The bus let us off in the Financial Center, off Market near Embarcadero, just before midnight. Time to haul the baggage down Market to Geary and then uphill past the square.

I looked pathetic. Even a couple of the street people offered to help. I would stop two or three times each block because my laptop case was slipping off my shoulder or I needed to rest the ankle.

It took about an hour to get to Lori’s with all the stops, though some were deliberate — looking at the holiday beauty in the windows (hundreds of white origami birds strung along with shiny silver plastic discs in a massive window at Neiman-Marcus) and admiring the square’s lights and scenery from across the street.

I got to Lori’s a few minutes after 1 and wrestled my gear up the steep first step. It was an encouraging sign to see a girl with an unruly shock of light blonde hair sitting with her laptop in a booth. She looked as if she had been camped there a while. I asked her if they had wi-fi; in a German accent, she told me yes and gave me the code. And the place wasn’t crowded: I could leave my suitcases alongside my booth.

The waiter, Victor, came to set me up and give me my menu. I ordered a burger and fries and a side of coleslaw and some coffee and settled in and answered emails.

The waitstaff at this Lori’s, part of a small SF chain of retro-themed diners, has always been nice to me, and Victor was no exception. Every so often, he’s come by and ask, “Do you need a refill, hon?” And he was very attentive. And not put off at all that I was camping out in one of the booths. It was a slow night, so I wasn’t taking any customers from him by sitting there. And as the satellite channel played lots of oldies I rarely hear on a radio, I kept myself occupied until 4:30, when I figured it was time.

I paid my tab, left with a hug from Victor and walked out … into the rain. Which isn’t very good when you’re wearing a wig. I had packed an umbrella, but my hands were full rolling two suitcases and shouldering a huge laptop. I stayed close to the buildings on Market as I closed in on the elevator down to the Powell Street BART station.

*****

About quarter after 5, I got off at the Coliseum stop in Oakland and boarded the bus to the airport ($3 each way). There are only two terminal buildings — one for Southwest, the other for the rest. I made my way into Terminal 1 at quarter to 6 and went straight to the women’s room, in the baggage claim area, where I put my face together, fixed my hair best as possible — and took care of one other detail I was worried about.

I don’t wear liquid makeup — Bare Escentuals works wonders on me — so I didn’t have to worry about checking it, and I carried my usual bag of tricks in my laptop case. But what about the brushes? Would the TSA folks consider them weapons? Would I have a bunch of expensive stuff confiscated and tossed?

Luckily, as I walked into the bathroom, a TSA employee was drying her hands at the sink.

“Excuse me,” I asked nicely. “I have a question for you.”

I think the woman was relieved that my question wasn’t heavy-duty. I showed her my brushes and she said, “No, you’re fine.”

Little things to put my mind at ease.

Thus encouraged, I headed toward the screening line, where there was little room to do anything — no tables to spread your stuff out before the X-ray machine. Gathered as many bins as I needed, took off the jewelry and stuffed it in my right coat pocket, took my CPAP machine for my sleep apnea out of the case so it could be swabbed for explosives, took the laptop out of the case, gingerly unzipped my boots and slowly placed my right heel on the flat tile.

I walked through the machine. No scanners — just a basic metal detector. And no patdowns. I had no metal on me, and the young man on the other end of the machine said, “You’re good.”

“Oh,” he said. “We’re gonna have to test that.” He was pointing to the CPAP.

“Yep — that’s cool. I know the drill,” I told him.

And that was it. He gave me back the machine and I was free to move about the country.

Painless. Effortless. Like buttah. The worst part of my trip was over — unless, of course, the snow that came down in Chicago two days before stacked so many flights that I was gonna miss my connection. Or, of course, if something happened to the plane.

*****

If anyone gave me an odd look, or had trouble with the tranny in their midst, I sure didn’t experience it. I got into a brief but nice conversation with a guy just before the boarding started in Oakland. And the Southwest staff treated me well. And while I only had a 35-minute layover at Midway, by the time I got off my first plane and to the gate, everyone was lined up to start boarding for Bradley. My timing was perfect.

The only thing that made me think some people might have been weirded out is that the seat next to me on two otherwise-crowded flights, just past the wing, was one of the last to be filled.

If you’ve never flown Southwest, there are no reserved seats — it’s first-come, first-served. Confirm your flight 24 hours ahead of time and you’ll have a decent shot of getting a seat of your choice. I confirmed two seconds after the 24 hours started and got confirmation numbers A57 to Midway and A58 to Bradley. Meaning I probably wouldn’t have a problem getting an aisle seat about halfway back — on the port side, so I could stretch my leg out and rest the ankle if I needed to. And I didn’t have a problem getting an aisle seat either time.

The people farther back in line were at the mercy of the remaining available space. And I noticed that my aisle seat both times was one of the last ones filled. I didn’t obsess about it; in fact, it was nice to have the extra space for even a short while.

Eventually, the seats were filled for both flights. I didn’t talk to the guy next to me from Midway to Bradley, but on the first flight, my neighbor was Jake, a twentysomething who worked for political nonprofits in Berkeley and was going home to his family in Champaign-Urbana, about an hour south of Chicago. Somehow, the conversation the last 45 minutes turned to music — his father is a professor at the local university and teaches, among other things, a rock’n’roll history class. I told him how I had been a music writer for 20 years, and we were off to the races until landing.

*****

Well, that was my non-eventful eventful first flight as myself. Ken brought me home around 9, we ordered some pizza, and I hung out with him and the folks. There’s something to be said about relatively stress-free flying.

I hope this wasn’t beginner’s luck — that things go just as well going through Bradley on the way back. I’ll always be a little wary about air travel, but my first go-round was pretty encouraging.

*****

UPDATE 1/11/11, 11:11:11 p.m. PST: We’re coming to you live from Room 507 at the Mosser Hotel in beautiful downtown San Francisco after a long day of travel. (By long, I mean I got here at 10:30 p.m, 1:30 a.m. EST. I woke up around 6:30 a.m. EST. I’m a little fried around the edges, but then I was always fried … And no complaints — while my family and East Coast friends are being hit with 12 to 18 inches of snow at the moment, I arrived in Oakland to what seems like 50 degrees.

Anyway, I’m happy to report that there were no problems on the return trip, either. I was slightly concerned about Bradley, since they have seem to do security theater very well — lots of people in crisp TSA uniforms, the baggage scanners out in the lobby right by the check-in counters, and I had heard they had the back-scatter body scanners.

Well, no, they didn’t. Just metal detectors. I was taking my necklace off when one of the guys said, “You can keep that on.” I had taken off the belt holding up my jeans, removed my cell phone and coinage, and didn’t realize until I retrieved my stuff that I had left one earring on.

Anyway, one of the guys even joked a little with me. The guy checking my license said, “Another great driver’s license photo from California.”

“Yeah.” I told him. “And I had to move all the way out there to get it.”

“It’s like taking a headshot for a movie audition,” he said. “No, this one’s no good — do it again.”

So I hammed up for him — looked upward, batted my eyelashes and said, “Tell me more about my eyes …” And he smiled and let me go off to be metal-detected …

I even think I saw a fellow tribeswoman while waiting for my connecting flight in Vegas tonight. Understand that McCarren Airport has the shittiest food selection of any alleged big-time city in the country, so it seems: Burger King, Sbarro, Subway, a bagel sandwich place that has a variety of bagels but no cream cheese I could see. So that’s why I was  doing a Whopper with cheese and a side of onion rings in the food court when I saw a ponytailed blonde sitting and eating and texting. She looked older than me, and from a left profile her features looked masculine, albeit a little softened. I didn’t bother her — besides, what if I was wrong? Yikes! — so I went off to sit at a nearby table and at least quietly reveled in my assumptions.

One thing that alternately bothers me and doesn’t bother me: Again today, even on two crowded flights, no one wanted the seat next to the tranny in the aisle. I don’t know if it’s prejudice or just that no one wants the middle seat, but at least the seat next to me from Vegas to Oakland was one of only a couple that weren’t occupied, so I was able to spread out for a little. If people fear catching tranny cooties from me — well, sometimes it does have its small advantages …

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3 Responses to “First flight”

  1. Alice Says:

    have a great time Fran~!
    <3, Alice

  2. Jackie Says:

    just so you know….. Last Sept We took a train non stop from Fresno to Jack London Square in Oakland….If you want to go to San Fransisco the Ferry is basically next door to the train station in Oakland…its about a 15 min ferry ride (cost around $5) to the Ferry building in San Fransisco….its how we travel to the city. It beats having to go from train to bus…plus the Ferry ride is kinda fun and give you a cool view of the City…especially at night.

    Happy you had a smooth, safe trip home. Hope your having a great time Frannie…and good luck with the job interview 🙂

    Merry Christmas friend.

  3. Eric Says:

    Have a great vacation, stay warm and eat some Apizza for me!

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