When I get dressed, the first question I ask myself is “Does this look OK on me and would a guy wear this?” I never ask myself “Does this make me look like a terrorist?” This morning I looked in the mirror and realized I was wearing the same clothes that I wore the last time I went through security at JFK. Blue jeans, black T-shirt, blue chambray work shirt, and gray wool socks.
I took off my belt, my sneakers, and my watch. I emptied my pockets, put my quart-size bag of toiletries and my electronics on the tray. I waited my turn, walked into the machine, spread my legs, put up my hands, counted to three, and when the TSO (Transportation Security Officer) nodded, I walked out to retrieve my stuff. Not so fast.
The TSO originally pressed the blue button for male and when lots of yellow squares appeared on the screen, she realized she made a mistake, and put me through again pressing the pink button for female. Donna overheard the discussion between the officers. It was neither private nor discreet. They did not realize she was with me.
The last three times I’ve traveled, I’ve had my palm swabbed for explosives. It wasn’t random. Donna waltzed through. My gender is seen as a potential threat to Homeland Security; hers is not.
The USA uses Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines at some checkpoints. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) video states that AIT is used to search for concealed weapons, explosives, and other “potential threats.” According to the manufacturer, AIT machines can handle between 200 and 300 people an hour, although the lane never moves that fast. Each time the officer has to press either the blue button or the pink one. If, from their perspective, they press the wrong one, it isn’t their fault. I dressed in blue, they pressed blue.
If you wear a binder, if you pack, or if your body shape doesn’t match the colored button, you may trigger a “genital anomaly” alert. This draws the attention of the TSO and the people behind you in line. Anomalies were not discussed on the TSA webpage on Transgender Travelers. The National Center for Transgender Equality Airport Security Update provides some information.
It is not my responsibility to tell the TSO which button to push, or to present more femininely, to make it easier. They are supposed to police for terrorism, not gender. I’d already shown security my boarding pass and my passport. All of my documents match. My genitals and my gender expression don’t.
The TSA presumes that there is something wrong if the two don’t match. The implied message is that gender non-conforming and transgender people are a potential threat to security because we are hiding something. It wasn’t so long ago that the government routinely denied security clearances to gay men and lesbians (who couldn’t be trusted because they could be blackmailed).
I know there are people who will ask “Well, what did you expect?” They think my discomfort and inconvenience is a small price to pay. They may believe racial and religious profiling makes the country safer. It doesn’t. It reinforces the idea that the people profiled are more dangerous than the “average American.”
I present in a way that makes me feel comfortable. When I am Sir’d, I feel seen, but I am on guard for a correction or an apology. When I am Ma’am’d, I cringe on the inside. When I get put through security twice and swabbed for explosives, I remember that I am a gender outlaw and a potential threat to society.
Note: While writing the post I wanted to use the correct title for the TSA employees, which turns out to be officer, not agent or screener. I found this out by looking up “TSA Job Titles” and reading the description of what a TSO (Transportation Security Officer) does. My favorite part is where it describes two of the challenges of being a TSO as “working with minimal staffing” and “working with outdated, old equipment.” Safety first!