When Pete Buttigieg was sworn in as the 19th Secretary of Transportation earlier this month, he became the first openly gay man to be named for this role in U.S. history.
Buttigieg—known for his military service and former role as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana—was chosen for his ability to bring all facets of the Department of Transportation together, according to President Biden. Those facets include improving transportation by rail, air, and road, as well as overseeing the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Highway Administration.
In this historic moment, advocacy groups are optimistic that Buttigieg’s platforms might make all forms of U.S. transportation safer for LGBTQ+ travelers. “Pete Buttigieg’s visibility within the past election campaign was necessary because of its symbolism,” says Daina Ruduša of OutRight Action International, a nonprofit that fights for LGBTQ+ rights globally. “The appointment fits into a larger context of this administration being the most LGBTQ+ friendly ever, which, in turn, has great implications beyond the borders of the U.S.”
But what does that mean for the community? Policy reforms that community members and allies hope to see range from modernized identification markers for trans and non-binary people to alerts from the government when visiting countries that criminalize those who identify as LGBTQ+.
“I’m 57 years old, and I watched most of my generation die of AIDS, and that happened because there was no out person at the table making policy in the ’80s,” says Kevin Jennings, the CEO of Lambda Legal, a global civil rights organization that works on LGBTQ+ legal cases. “Having Buttigieg at the cabinet table, our community perspective can never be ignored again. It was ignored when I was a young man, which cost hundreds of human lives. Had there been someone at the table, my first boyfriend and college roommate would be alive. Just raising the consciences of people like TSA agents about the special needs and sensitivities of the LGBTQ+ community is something Pete can present to his new colleagues. The saying goes, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Implementing new identification policies
Members of the LGBTQ+ community often dread traveling for fear of harassment, gender misrepresentation, and mockery by unprepared transportation staff. Though the Transportation Security Administration—which staffs most of the workers travelers interact with at transportation hubs—is a separate agency and part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the DOT can work with the DHS to create inclusive policies for all Americans. Yana Calou of Trans Lifeline, the first-ever crisis support hotline devoted to members of the trans community, hopes Buttigieg will consider “removal of all discriminatory TSA policies and procedures affecting trans, intersex, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people.” In addition, working with the DOS and DHS, the DOT can push for “the removal of ID costs, fees, and requirements specific to trans people for travel documents,” adds Calou. Each state and county has a different ID process for trans people, and paperwork can often be confusing and expensive to file. Thirty-two states require an extra public hearing for said changes, which can cost up to $500 and expose trans community members in unsafe ways.
Another policy Calou would like to see enacted is “a gender-neutral gender marker option for all federal and state documents impacting travel.” Many countries like Canada and Denmark allow for a third gender option while the U.S. (even for visitors) forces you to classify as male or female on your passport. “Secretary Buttigieg should urge every travel carrier and point of entry to include nonbinary options on travel forms,” says Mary Emily O’Hara of GLAAD. “It’s also vital that Buttigieg works with airlines to codify family boarding policies to include all families and prevent harassment of LGBTQ+ passengers.”
“We’re waiting to see a strategy that reflects the communities that he says he is a champion for.”
Harper Jean Tobin, a policy consultant who works on trans and LGBTQ+ advancements, thinks the DOT can take steps to promote equity for trans and non-binary people starting with “reviewing and simplifying medical certification procedures for transgender pilots and adopting rules and guidance to make clear that federal transportation funding laws prohibit discrimination against LGBTQI+ people.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling last year on the matter—in the Bostock v. Clayton County Case—ensures trans people can’t be fired from a job, ejected from a public restroom, or kicked off of a bus by a state or local agency that receives funds from the DOT or other federal departments.
Improving access to public transportation
Buttigieg’s plan “needs to include Black communities who rely on public transportation,” says Elle Hearns, the founder and executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, an organization devoted to protecting and advocating for Black trans people’s rights. “We’re waiting to see a strategy that reflects the communities that he says he is a champion for.”
The DOT could work with state officials to implement more accessible public transportation options. States like Ohio have implemented programs like COTA Plus, a program that enables passengers to book affordable shared vehicles through a mobile app and in a designated service area. “We’re hoping to see better public transportation in urban and rural areas since LGBTQ+ people of color tend to rely more on public transportation,” says Earl Fowlkes of the Center for Black Equity, a global network dedicated to supporting Black LGBTQ+ communities. “Our communities hurt when transportation opens later or doesn’t run all night.”
Buttigieg addressed some of these issues in an NPR interview in January. “It starts with the President’s rescue package, which identifies $20 billion to support our transit agencies that have taken such a blow,” he said. “But the reality is just trying to prop them up or get back to pre-COVID levels isn’t really good enough when you consider the need for us to have stronger transit systems … It’s important for equity because we know that in many parts of the country, there are transit deserts, disproportionately in Black, brown, and tribal communities.”
Prioritizing safety for domestic and international travelers
Sixty-five countries criminalize homosexuality, and the DOT can work with Foreign Affairs within the DOS to keep all Americans safe, possibly by forming a new federal agency dedicated to travel advisories. “There should be a more substantial effort in creating safer spaces for LGBTQ+ people in public transit,” says Fowlkes from the Center for Black Equity. “We have to include transportation police when we talk about police reform. It’s less reassuring to see transportation police if you’re transgender or non-binary, and that’s not okay.”
States like Alabama and Wyoming have the least amount of protections for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S., and taking a road trip across America can leave you in unsafe spaces if you’re not careful. In 2021, all Americans should feel comfortable navigating different areas, especially in their own country, and it must be viewed as a human right. Now the LGBTQ+ community has one of their own leading the way, and it gives hope that we all can safely and comfortably move through different spaces.
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