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Flying While Black, Queer, And A Person of Size

Every week, I rush through my local airport, making sure I have enough time to complete my flying rituals. Flying has always brought me a great deal of anxiety, and it’s not just because of how tedious the boarding process can be. Adding to the anxiety of moving through TSA in a timely manner and the stress of making it to my gate is the feeling of who I am and the space I take up.

My experiences from boarding to reaching my destination cause me to reflect on each of my identities. In some cases, the experiences are connected to my racial identity, while others are connected to my size. But as of late, flying as a Black, queer, person of size means taking up more than someone’s space; it means infringing on the totality of another person’s level of comfort.

As any marginalized person can tell you, living with multiple oppressed identities means living a life where you are constantly having to navigate multiple painful experiences, all at the same time. In my case, as a Black, queer, person of size it is no different when I fly. The experience is often one where you are trying not to overthink the actions of others, while still trying to stay present with the actions of others in response to the person you are.

From the feeling of wondering if someone doesn’t want to sit next to you because you are Black, queer, a person of size or all of the above, flying with said identities is in fact, daunting.

Knowing that a non-person of color may push past you when it is time to board, or someone might bump you or talk over you without saying “excuse me” can really leave a lasting impression. Let us not forget the moments when you board with first class and someone says, “Oh, I need to get to my seat,” insinuating that you could not possibly deserve the opportunity to stand in first class with everyone else. When that person can’t imagine you paid for the upgrade so that you wouldn’t have to make someone else uncomfortable in economy.

Even more painful are the moments when you worry about sitting next to someone, constantly touching them or bumping them because most seats are not made accessible for your size. And of course, my favorite moment of having to sit next to a cis hetero male and having them ask to move seats because your very existence compromises their toxic masculinity.

Keep in mind that all of these things happen before the plane actually takes off.

There are several times I was made to feel both large and small while in flight, and how demeaning it was to me as a Black person of size. In one situation, two white women who boarded the plane together talked across me as I sat in the middle seat. When offering them the chance to switch seats, they actively ignored me and continued with their conversation. On another occasion, a gentleman saw me storing my luggage over him and when I asked him to get to my seat next to him, he called a stewardess and asked if he could be reseated. When said stewardess said no, he grabbed his items and got off the plane.

Flying as a Black queer person of size is stressful because we live in a world where we must be hypersensitive of both identities and the politics that are at play with both of them. In a world where a Black person of size is worried that they may have the police called on them for just existing on an aircraft, it is imperative for folks to understand there is privilege in being able to fly comfortably. What’s disconcerting is how many Black, queer people of size fly and very rarely do we hear about the experiences they have and why airline companies should be paying them more attention.

So how does anyone who holds privilege help make the flying experience better for Black, queer people of size?

Well, first, know that being in economy class, our bodies will at some point touch. It is a given, and if I had the money for an extra seat or to fly first class every time, I would. However, your being uncomfortable with our bodies touching only complicates the experience for the both of us and only adds the the emotional taxation that flying has on Black queer people of size.

Some of my best experiences flying have come from those who have checked in with me because they see me and my struggle, and how complicated flying can be. Flying is stressful for anyone and your discomfort with me and my existence only makes the travel that much more complicated.

In moments when we can give attention to the needs of others, specifically those who are marginalized daily, we not only are we making someone’s experience better, but we are in fact making the skies that much friendlier.

Image via Getty


Jonathan P. Higgins, Ed.D

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