A Potential Threat to Homeland Security

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.

Point-and-shootThe officer ordered me to go through the machine again. Then another officer patted me down very thoroughly, particularly around my groin and my chest binder, and swabbed my hand for explosives.

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!

35 thoughts on “A Potential Threat to Homeland Security

  1. anexactinglife

    This concerns me whenever my kid travels. Plus, it is mandatory that you choose a form of address (such as Mr or Ms) whenever you book an airline ticket. In practice, though, whenever we depart from a Canadian airport, I have been randomly selected for scanning just as often as they are.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      One of the reasons a lot of transgender people don’t travel is that they can’t get their documents in order (the don’t use the name on their driver’s license, or it doesn’t match their passport, or their gender marker doesn’t match their appearance) through no fault of their own. It is a lot of work to do a legal name change, and then it can look weird not to have the gender marker changed to match the name, and it can be really difficult to get a legal gender change some places (they require surgery). It is just a mess and every jurisdiction (at least in the US) has different rules and throws different obstacles your way (including high processing fees).

      I travel as an “F” because thats how all my documents are ordered. I had no problems traveling before the “X-ray” machines were installed and people were processed by perceived gender. Everytime I’ve gone through an AIT I ‘ve had a problem.

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  2. Dan B

    This is really thought provoking. You may be profiled because you are also considered non-average by them meaning you get flagged. It makes sense based on their logic, however it doesn’t make it right.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It has only happened in the US – I’ve never been pulled aside anywhere else – because they either sex segregate the search from the start (India and Turkey in which case I went to the women’s line) or they search everyone the same.
      I also have an issue with their lack of subtlety in exclaiming out loud, in front of the other passengers, that they couldn’t figure out what sex to process me as, and what to do about searching me after the “anomalies” were identified. All they needed to do was ask to see my ID before putting me through, and then we could have had a discussion of what I was wearing underneath my clothes if I set off a sensor.
      I read some blogs by people who are disabled and have been subject to searches because of braces, oxygen tanks, prosthetics, etc. Some of their stories are very ugly. The system needs to be modified.

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  3. RonaFraser

    Weird!! At first I was wondering if they saw the binder and thought you had some explosive wrapped there (because why would a guy have fabric wrapped there)… but surely it wouldn’t show on the screen? Weird. I haven’t travelled since 2007, and times have changed a lot in that time… but the most I’ve ever had was a full bag search. Even that was embarrassing (and trying to ram everything back in?!). Sorry you have to go through that. Modern life really sucks sometimes.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      This is definitely a middle-class and first world problem. My issue is treating people who are transgender or gender non-conforming as “suspicious” and non-standard. This has to happen fairly frequently, but each time it is as if it has never happened before.
      The assumption is that the TSA agent should somehow be able to figure out which button to push without seeing the travel documents of the person going through the machine because “everybody” is presumed to be cisgender (e.g. presents as the sex they were assigned at birth and has matching genitals). They should be expecting to see transgender, androgynous, or gender non-conforming travelers and should be trained in how to handle it without humiliating the passenger or acting like an ignorant fool. It would also make the line move faster which is in everyone’s interest.

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  4. Snowbird of Paradise

    Interesting article. I’m going to pass it on to my transgender child. The TSA seems to be doing secondary screenings for a lot of people these days. Now that I am retired I travel fairly often, and it seems as though I get a second screening and/or pat-down more often than not. I wonder if it is because I am single and travel alone. Twice I have asked why I was selected for this and both times I was told it was just random. Seems odd, though.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      If Donna hadn’t heard the officers bellyaching over what to do with me I might have assumed it was random or just a sensitive machine.
      I have a friend who is an American citizen but was born in Jamaica and travels there a couple of times a year. She gets stopped and has her bags searched every time she comes back into the US because she fits the profile for a drug mule. But they told her it was random too.

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  5. hiddeninyoursoul

    I was so glad last time I went through security I had the excuse that I couldn’t raise my arms due to just having surgery. I got to go through a metal detector and had my hands swabbed. I wish people didn’t have to deal with this though. Having been subjected to it once during my trip to Miami, I would hate to have to deal with that all the time.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      In the scheme of things it isn’t so bad- except you can’t get in their face about how stupid the whole system is (or you would end up being detained). It is just one example of a system set up with the assumption that everyone is cisgender and if you are not, or if the machine can’t “read” you, then you are a suspicious character (bad enough to worry about how I am being “read” by the TSA, now I get to worry about being “read” by a machine).
      I have not seen much about whether post top-surgery trans men who read as male and have changed their gender marker to M have had a problem going through (without packing) – but there are a lot of similar stories for guys who wear binders or pack.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It is one of the reasons why I try to leave as often as I can! Seriously, I’ve never had a problem like this traveling anywhere else. Hopefully your friends will come and visit you.

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  6. Matthew

    The rationale behind TSA policies is neither logical nor sensitive, even beyond trans travelers. A while ago, I was flying out of Houston and they decided to do an extra screening of a 6-year-old child. The boy was screaming his head off and when the mother protested — saying “what on earth do you expect to find on a 6-year-old child? — the officer turned to her and said (I am quite serious) “Ma’am, if you were going to smuggle a bomb on board this plane, where better to hide it than on your 6-year-old child who you think we aren’t going to search?”

    I don’t fly anymore, by choice, and this is a big part of the reason why.

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    1. RonaFraser

      Wow. What a sad state of the world when we are considered terrorists until proven not. It is depressing… and scary. Suddenly I don’t feel so bad about not being able to afford a flight…

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      1. Matthew

        Jamie Ray, thanks for that link to the TSA screener’s blog — it was indeed both funny and scary. I’m a gender-queer individual who can be taken for both male and female by different people within the same minute, regardless of how I dress or present myself, and the mistake generally doesn’t bother me if it’s coming from someone I don’t know and am unlikely to see again (though I do issue corrections if the person is someone I see on a regular basis), but this type of behavior from someone “official” such as a TSA screener who can legally ruin your day is disturbing (e.g. your comment that they can detain you long enough to cause you to miss your flight).

        I do honestly have to say though that my avoidance of flying is at least 95% based on not wanting to give my business and my money to an industry that forces me to prove I’m not a terrorist each time I use their product, and only about 5% based on anticipation of an embarrassing screening experience.

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  7. Ezekiel

    I’ve had exactly these problems with TSA. My binder set off the x-ray machine no matter which button they push (and yes, they have sent me back through because they pushed the “wrong” one), and I know folks for whom chest scars set off the machine. I haven’t traveled since surgery so I don’t know if that is true for me. Also there have been times where they assume my kids are not my kids (even if they are right with me and holding my hand) and separate us (though they are able to go with my wife) and only screen me and not anyone else in my family — I think in those cases they were reading me as my wife’s teenage son….awkward.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Yes it awkward. The TSO need some (more?) training in how to deal with transgender and gender non-conforming travelers without humiliating them or being overly zealous in the pat down. I know a few people who don’t travel because they can’t get their documents in order and they refuse to present or can no longer present to match the sex markers on their documents.

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  8. timethief

    Wow! I’m so sorry to read that you and others are going through this, Jamie Ray. I haven’t flown to the USA for a few years now so you can color me clueless.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      In ye olden days we only had to go through the metal detectors, and our carry on stuff got x-rayed. The introduction of the body scanning x-ray machines is problematic for a lot of people, not just transgender or gender non-conforming people. It has caused a lot of problems for people with disabilities, and as you can imagine, the TSO are generally not sympathetic to their issues either.

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  9. Georgeann

    After reading this post I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. We flew today, the kids’ first flight since they were infants, and my family got put through the wringer by TSA. One would think a military family traveling with DOD ID cards and young children wouldn’t be treated like a threat to national security, but we were. My eight year old daughter was swabbed for bomb residue! Lunacy! And this was not the first time that we have been harassed. It literally happens every time we fly. My husband and I have been through every conceivable search scenario developed by TSA, so I have come to the conclusion that this is not random. I am sorry that you have to deal with jackasses when you fly, but you are not alone! And my philosophy (and my husband’s too) is: make a scene! You didn’t do anything wrong!

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  10. Jamie Ray Post author

    Right, because if you work for DOD you might have access to weapons, and you might have brought them with you on a passenger flight. Or given them to your eight year old. It doesn’t make me feel very secure that this is what the TSA is concerned about.
    I didn’t make a scene at the time because I wanted to catch my flight; and I wouldn’t put it past the TSA to detain someone just long enough that they can’t board. Hope you enjoy your trip and that your return trip goes more smoothly.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for the re-blog!
      I put up with it in order to keep peace in the family (I like to travel once I get out of the USA and my partner is happiest while traveling). Unlike the various bathroom, dressing room, and locker room issues I have – this one has no good alternative solution (e.g. gender neutral security lines).

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  11. Sophia Hudson

    The fact that the ONLY options are pink or blue says a lot. Agendered, genderfluid, and transgendered people—anyone who doesn’t fit the binary, really—are excluded. Ridiculous.

    Thank you for this post. I’m so sorry you had to go through this.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      The TSA version of pink and blue is quite rigid – as is their assumption that everyone can be divided up into one of two categories. They really have no reasonable way to deal with anyone who breaks the binary mold.

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  12. middleagebutch

    The last time that we flew, I got swabbed for explosives both going to and coming from our destination of Atlanta. W got pulled into the expedited security line both times because she apparently isn’t as threatening as her big ol’ butch partner.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I’d really like to know what is going through the TSO’s head. Are they thinking “I can’t figure out whether that is a middle aged butch or a teenage boy with gray hair so I better swab them for explosives?”
      I’m very careful how I pack and what I bring back from abroad because I feel like I have a big sign on me that says “search me”. But Donna sails through just like W.

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  13. transiteration

    I wrote a post about this about a year ago. I was never stopped by the officers until I started transitioning, and then I got stopped every time and certain airports. They always have been respectful to me, even when I have to get a pat-down. I guess I have been lucky though because I have heard a lot of stories about them being rude.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      They weren’t exactly rude to me, they were just clueless and unprofessional. There is no reason that someone should be stopped solely because they are transgender or gender non-conforming, or because the TSO guessed incorrectly.

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  14. micah

    The kicker for me is, once I get flagged for screening or pat down, they don’t know who should do it! Confusion ensues as officers squirm to figure it out among themselves, thus I am the lucky winner of the quickest pat downs in TSA history. (I also get asked if I am traveling by myself, because I look underage.)

    Sensible-minded TSOs also find this policy completely ridiculous: http://takingsenseaway.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/confession-x-the-most-awkward-moment-for-a-tsa-screener/

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Right, after all the work you did to get your paperwork in order to travel, the TSA separates the officer who checks your face with your documents from the officer who puts you through the weapons screening. If the two were together it would be somewhat less confusing (they could screen according to your legal sex). A lot of transgender people would still set off the alarms, but at least there wouldn’t be that awkward moment of “are you a man or a woman?”
      Thanks for the link.

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