Snakes on a Plane: Struggling with Transphobia at 30,000 Feet – Em Readman

By Em Readman

The flight from Brisbane to Perth takes about five hours. The seats are uncomfortable, the movies are pretty good, and the vegetarian meals are hit or miss. I take this flight pretty often to visit my family, so it’s become a halfway house of sorts for me.  

You meet some pretty interesting characters on these flights, plenty of people going home and plenty leaving it. You meet all sorts of people and with five hours next to each other you can’t go too long without learning a thing or two about your seatmates. The two men who sat down next to me on the last trip were nice enough, they were into motocross and one of them helped me with my carry-on luggage in the overhead locker. We settled in for a cross country trip and everything was fine. Until the dinner service.   

The flight attendant, who I came to know as Simon, was a lovely man, friendly and sympathetic to a little boy a few rows ahead who wasn’t dealing well with the turbulence. He was tall, well-groomed and was beautiful in a very femme way. As he passed our seats with the drinks cart, the men next to me couldn’t stop staring, they looked at each other wide-eyed. 

Then they started laughing.   

“Look, it’s a tranny,” one said to the other, loud enough that the passengers in the seats around me looked up, looked at each other and then back to their movies and books and papers. The men didn’t let up, they kept loudly talking about the man’s appearance, the way his voice sounded and concerningly, his crotch. This wasn’t banter or lewd jokes; it was complete and utterly disgusting transphobia. (It’s worth noting that the flight attendant was not transgender, but the men had made their own assumptions based on what he looked like).   

I sat there, stunned, not sure what to say. I wanted to tell them that they were sitting next to one of those ‘freaky queers,’ but I knew that it’s not always a good idea to confront people who are so unreserved and open about their bigotry. They kept going, slur after slur after slur. I thought about how furious I was, how unsafe I felt, how I had four more hours next to some of the most horrible people I’ve had the experience of encountering. I knew that I had a choice to make.  

Gingerly, I stood up, walked to the back of the plane and tapped Simon on the shoulder. I started talking, tripping over my words, telling him about the horrible things that had been said about him, avoiding the exact words. I also asked if it would be possible to move seats. 

“Tell me what they said about me,” he said. “I’m sure I can handle it.” 

I told him. No words spared. He told me to wait where I was at the back of the plane. He walked right up to the men in my row, leant down and launched right into them. I couldn’t hear, but I could see that Simon was not holding back. When he was done, he motioned to me, asking me to come down the plane and collect my things. The men’s faces were red and focussed on their screens. Simon found me a new seat for the remainder of the flight.  

I’m no stranger to homophobia, I’ve copped a little bit of it for being queer myself, but I’ve never seen it so openly, so loudly and confidently spewed in my proximity. That plane ride was a lesson in combatting bigotry face to face. I’m good at it on Facebook, I’m good at it at rallies and amongst friends but I’ve never come so close to it. I knew that being cisgender leant itself to me on that plane ride, and I leveraged that privilege to put a stop to it. What this plane ride taught me is that intolerance is alive and well, and it’s scary. However, no matter how scared, you’ve gotta fight the fear as much as you can, in whatever capacity you can manage. 

After we landed, I talked to Simon at the back of the plane again. The tone of our conversation suggested that this was not his first brush with this kind of behaviour on the job. What he said at the end of our conversation stuck with me.  

“Homophobia doesn’t stop when you ask nicely. It doesn’t wait for you to tell them off. It stops when we take the power back off of them, look them in the eyes, human to human and show them you aren’t going to take it. Welcome to Perth, enjoy your stay.” 


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