April 17, 2009

The Case of the Curious Customs Agent

Posted in Identification, transgender, travel at 4:31 am by Michael

We (Me, Anh, Samwich) went to France for a couple of weeks (more on that to come). We have travelled internationally a bunch since I’ve transitioned, and never previously had any challenges getting into other countries, or back to the states. (We’ve been to France, Italy and Spain (Canada too!), and I’ve been to Israel as well)

I was initially concerned that because my passport still (and will) says: Gender M; that it would raise questions or we’d be stopped for additional questioning. In fact, the only time we ever got stopped was coming back from Spain – and that was at customs, not passport control – as it seems like they additionally screen everyone coming back from Spain because of the prevalence of Ham Smuggling (I kid you not, and this is NOT a euphemism). We had no ham, just some gummi bears in that international smuggler Samwich’s backpack that under x-ray appear ham-like.

Now, I also do something a little trouble-maker-like (I know you are shocked) – I fill out only one customs form for the three of us, as we are a family, and it asks “Number of People in Your Family Travelling with You”. We are legally married, and I see no reason to do anything different.

Anyway, we got back Wednesday, glad to have gone, glad to be back. We flew direct on Air France from Paris (nice airline…. order the kids meal for your kids). When we got to passport control, I gave the passports and the customs slip to the agent, who was a late 30’s, early 40’s Latina woman. (The agent who I’ve gotten many times before, who is a big, bald, white guy was in the next booth, but we didn’t pull him. The most I’ve gotten from him before is “Where do you work?” and then a hearty “Welcome Home!”. It was not to be that simple…)

She starts….

“Where are you going?”

Me: “Home? We live in Seattle.”

“Are you carrying any food items?”

Me: “Yes, chocolate.” (And declared on the form).

She flipped the form over a couple of times, looked at me, Anh, Samwich….. paused.

“How are you all related?”

Me: (Slowly, and looking right into her eyes, leaning forward slightly) “We are legally married.”

“Is this your son?” (Looking at all three passports again)

Me: “Yes, we are his parents.”

Here’s where it went totally off the tracks. She’s now holding my passport, looking at it intently, and she clearly sees the “Gender: M” thing.

“I have to ask, because of your appearance…. Can you explain?”

Me:  “I am transgendered. I transitioned from male to female, because of the passport rules, I am still ‘Male’. However, we were legally married before, and we still are.”

“And you like it better, being a girl?”

I had no idea how to even answer that.

Me: “I am who I am.”

“And you are still married?”(To Anh) “What, are you just like best friends or something? Not really ‘married’?”

Anh: “No, we are married. Married.”

“How does that work?”

Anh: “It just does. We are married.”

“And you are ok with that?”

Anh: “Yes.”

“And this is your son?”

Anh: “Yes, this is our biological son.”

“And you just like live together now, like friends.”

Me and Anh: “No, we are married.”

“Were you like best friends or something before?”

Anh: “No, I didn’t know about this before we got married.”

She shook her head, and kind of gave us that look like “Well, Whatever”

“I have to ask.”

I’m not sure she did.

“Huh…. I’ve never seen *this* before.”

What like, heffalumps and woozles?

“Ok, thanks for telling me your story.”

Like I had a choice?

“You can go.”

Anh and I looked at each other, kind of shocked as we walked to get our bags. It felt not great, and certainly not within the bounds of normal customs practice. I’m sure the fifty people in line behind us really appreciated her intensive questioning of the trans-family.

Don’t you feel safer knowing that Homeland Security is on the job?



  1. Sarah TX said,

    Wow, that level of questioning from a stranger is uncalled-for. Kudos for keeping your temper!

  2. Heather said,

    I love it! You handled that superbly. More than likely she was just curious about you and wanted to learn more. It certainly seems as if no harm was done and you were able to maybe educate someone and make it a little easier on the next transgendered person that this agent encounters.

  3. Tylla said,

    I am so bummed that someone would be so intrusive.
    and good for you for being so level headed!

  4. I have to say, this makes me really mad. I think you (and the two commenters above) took the high road, but I’m disturbed that she can ask questions out of personal curiosity while operating in her position. It doesn’t seem right, and I think it crosses about 100 different lines. I actually feel like a formal complaint is in order, but maybe if you complained about all the ignorant a-holes, it would be a full time job. I don’t know, I’m discouraged.

    “Thanks for telling me your story”??? Thanks for making me. Argh. You are incredibly patient and gracious.

  5. brian said,

    whiskey. tango. fox-trot.

  6. Ronaldo Souza said,

    Congratulations! You do the right thing: direct aswers and keeping your temper. She was very intrusive. I had never seen anything like it before!

    Best Regards,

    Ronaldo Souza, from Brazil

  7. Kelli said,

    I think curiosity is only normal, but that was *way* over the line for someone in that capacity. I’d understand to the point of explaining appearance, but past that, it’s just rude. What needs to be known is enough to do the job, and determining the difference there can be part of that. Past that? Meh. Some people just don’t have any social graces. Thankfully, you guys do and handled it well. 😀

  8. DanaZ said,

    Remind me to tell you sometime about my trip home from our Fargo campus.


  9. Sara said,

    Wow, talk about rude…those questions were clearly for her own curiosity and not in the interest of getting you back on U.S. soil! I echo the comment above about keeping your temper…must’ve been the jet-lag, huh. 😉

  10. khalid said,

    You are amazing!
    I’ve been meaning to find out more about you from the time we met.
    After reading about you for the last few hours (and i do mean HOURS!), i am absolutely amazed with your accomplishments and greatful to have spent time with you, Anh and Samwich.

    -Had i only known you’re an exec! (kicking myself for paying half of dinner 😉

    Hope to see all of you soon!

  11. Violet said,

    It’s funny how obnoxious and tacky total strangers can be, though I suppose we’re all guilty of that. I don’t think I could have been as gracious as you were.

  12. katya said,

    You and Ahn were a class act. Way to keep your cool. I am sorry you had to experience this. This is probably the most intrusive and innapropriate level of questioning U.S. citizens ever experience “coming home”. But some of the agents just have no sense of humor or sarcasm or measure, or seem to leave it at the door on the job.

    For what it’s worth, about a year ago on my way back from Ukraine (my country of birth and nationality at the time), a customs agent at Seatac (also not passport control) proceeded to drill way deep into the details of how i got my greencard, much to the entertainment of every passenger on the plane waiting for lugagge. At some point, she asked me if i was “sure” that i wasn’t a mail-order bride (fist clenching and a wave of sarcasm about to unleash) and wanted to see my MSFT badge as proof. And this would be logical because i would naturally take MSFT badge on vacation to a small town in Ukraine? Or because the only path to enter the U.S. legally for a Ukrainian woman is through “mail order” marriage, naturally? 🙂

    You can scratch the “educate the customs agent” off the list now. 🙂


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