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Transgender Travelers vs. the TSA

Originally published on SexIs Magazine by Kal Cobalt

There’s a lot of outrage about the TSA’s “enhanced patdowns” (their term) and “pornoscanners” (the media’s) going around. Despite all the coverage, one important problem has been overlooked— but then, it always has: How do gender and orientation outliers navigate the system of “same-sex” security?

No one loves to go through airport security, especially now that stricter measures are in place. If you haven’t heard, here’s a quick rundown of what’s causing all the fuss: At the TSA screener’s discretion, any air traveler can be subjected to enhanced screening, which consists of either a backscatter scan or an enhanced patdown. What do these terms mean, and why is it especially important to GLBTQ community? Let’s get into it.

Backscatter Scan

This device acts somewhat like a metal detector, but it uses a specific type of wave that generates an astonishingly clear image of the person’s body—sans clothes. Aside from the many and varied concerns the public has recently raised in the media about this process, backscatter scans present a particular difficulty for transgendered and genderqueer travelers.

Chest binders, stuffed bras, and silicone penises would, at best, be clearly visible. At worst (or in the hands of an uninformed screener), the sight of these unfamiliar objects on a traveler’s person would trigger questions and additional physical screening. In some cases, the removal of intimate foreign objects such as prosthetic breasts have already been required. It’s not hard to see the psychological damage here, let alone the potential problems if the person is “outed” to traveling companions.

Enhanced Patdown

Those who do not wish to go though the backscatter scan, or those selected for additional screening in airports not equipped with the scanner, must receive an enhanced patdown. “Enhanced” refers to the thoroughness of the patdown, including touching of the chest and genitals.

Again, while many general concerns have been raised, GLBTQ travelers face additional difficulties. Transgendered and genderqueer travelers face the same potential for exposure and humiliation with enhanced patdowns as they do with the backscatter scanner, but the additional question of what constitutes a “same-sex screener” comes into play. And that’s where everything about same-sex screening falls apart.

A Problem of Inertia

Don’t get me wrong: I won’t blame whoever first invented the same-sex patdown for their gender and orientation blindness. Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals weren’t always this visible, and certainly the visibility of the transgendered and genderqueer community is relatively recent.

The problem isn’t that same-sex patdowns began out of a desire to provide comfort and safety. The problem is that they continue as if heterosexual cisgendered people are the only ones who exist, despite the fact that it’s pretty hard to live in 2011 actually believing that’s reality. The black-and-white policy ignores the fact that when it comes to sexuality and gender, there are an awful lot of shades of grey.  Take me, for example. In terms of my biology, I’m female. In terms of my appearance, I’m androgynous enough to have been called “Mister” a few times, but my voice gives my biology away. My I.D. has an “F” on it. Since these are all the indicators available to the TSA, they would pair me with a female screener. However, I generally use male pronouns and think of myself as a guy. But in the unlikely event that I could convince them to give me a male screener, what good would that do? I’m pansexual, and identify as primarily attracted to men.

If the idea is to pair me with someone where sexual attraction won’t come into play, you can’t guess that for me based on what’s in the screener’s pants. (I would also posit that the question of whether the screener is attracted to the traveler is actually more important, and in this regard the TSA blithely assumes all screeners are heterosexual. Then again, the assumption seems to be that all travelers are as well.)  On top of all of this, an increased amount of behavioral profiling is taking place in airports. Specially trained agents monitor the behavior of travelers to spot anything out of the ordinary and report them for additional screening.

Think about it for a minute: If you present as male and wore a chest binder, would you look nervous and uneasy as you came up to the security checkpoint? If you were a lesbian and realized the super-hot TSA agent was assigned to you for an enhanced patdown, would your cheeks flush and your hands tremble? If you had a simultaneous fetish for uniforms and guns [italic|and] an extreme fear of federal detention …Well, I’m probably the only one of those.

A Better Way

A local concert venue I frequent is fairly strict with door security: Everyone goes through a metal detector, bags are searched, and all attendees are subject to a patdown if security sees fit. When I first began attending concerts there, they split their two security stations the way the TSA might: Men go through one and women go through the other.  This immediately caused problems. At many shows, the ratio of men to women was not at all equal. Female fans who had waited at the front of the line for hours before the show suddenly found themselves bottlenecked at the ladies’ metal detector, waiting behind a woman with a purse that needed to be searched, while men who had been behind them in line breezed on through.

The problem was compounded by security’s reliance on a visual body search in most cases. If their suspicions were not aroused, no patdown was necessary, and hence the same-sex lineup seemed completely moot.  Hell hath no fury like an avid concertgoer denied their rightful place in the front row, and soon I found that the venue had changed its process.

Currently, it’s men and women without bags in one line and women with bags in the other. It’s still a sexist way of splitting things (would it have killed them to call it “people with bags” and “people without bags”?), but much more reasonable.  Obviously, the TSA’s problem is much more nuanced, and it will take a much more complex fix. However, the current blind eye to the potential of same-sex inappropriateness, the question of whether sex or gender should determine who pats a passenger down, and the inevitable and unforgivable embarrassment and “outing” of transgendered and genderqueer persons is not getting the TSA any closer to a solution.


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