A trans author walks into an airport security check
"Trans people are around 10 times more likely to be subject to extra airport security scans," writes Harry Josephine Giles, an Edinburgh performer who brings their show to New Zealand this week.
I’m writing this in patches as I accelerate through time and round the world. I’m flying from Scotland to New Zealand, to bring my poetry theatre show Drone to Wellington and Auckland. It’s 32 hours in planes and airports. It's three rounds of dinner-sleep-breakfast-lunch-dinner-sleep, manufacturing some sense of habit in the light, noise and movement. In each plane, I hope, my overlarge suitcase is carrying the star of my show - a little consumer drone.
International travel is a good way to get into the mindset for Drone, a show in which I tell the anxious biography of the eponymous aircraft, accompanied by live electronic music and visuals. If a drone could descend to earth, what stories would she tell? I’m hung in the air asking the same question of myself. Drones are the technology of the 21st century – panoptic crowdsourced surveillance, remote violence, suspect agency enmeshed in spectacular military technology, consumer entertainment, complicity. I talk to drones to learn about myself.
I’ve been building a career in literature and performance for 10 years, and now this smooths my own way across the world’s borders. It’s an astonishing gift that I’m now able to travel round the world to perform for international audiences. I’m taking advantage of it while I can, before it becomes impossible, a breakdown I’m now partly responsible for by taking these unsustainable flights. I’ve never earned a living wage for my work, rarely more than my national minimum, but I’m still grateful. So I carry with me a pair of letters and a passport that should guarantee my ability to cross the dangerous line between states. At home, much of my political energy is spent in organising against this system, with demonstrations at our border prisons, actions against deportations, and solidarity work with migrant communities. Sometimes I write poems about this. Somehow poems like this have enabled me to cross borders myself, to other places where I can perform the poems.
But as I move across the borders of gender, I’m starting to encounter more resistance at the borders of states. Airport security is mostly a kind of theatre, in which passengers are asked to play certain roles, and stepping outside of them invites greater scrutiny, greater risk of violence.
Some of us look wrong. Trans people are around 10 times more likely to be subject to extra scans and searches in airport security, and the automatic full body scan machines only have two settings, neither of which react well to our bodies. We’re all frightened of which guard is going to pat us down, how they’ll react to whatever they find. (Another cycle: writing this sentence on layover in Dubai reminds me to take my daily hormones.) I can make choices about how I present myself to ease my way, but all of them hurt.
All this feels much harder now than two years ago, when I last visited New Zealand with my poems. Bodies change even though the patterns repeat. I’m looking forward to landing: I’ve never felt so welcome as on my last tour there (here), with warmth for my work, interest in my own country, support for my tricky being in the world. This welcome, too, is bound up in a history and present of settler-colonisation: I’m flying over shipping routes that carried my forebears from Orkney, my home. There are cities here (there) with the names reversed.
I don’t know anything else to do with these twin joys and sorrows, guilts and liberations, cages and doors, but to write through them. Drone is one attempt to do so, embodying the violence of military capitalism, performing gender, crossing borders, and speaking through an anxious life. Thank you for inviting these words across the world.
Harry Josephine Giles will perform Drone at Te Auaha, Tapere Iti, Wellington on November 8-9, and at the The Basement Theatre in Auckland from November 12-16.