Flying as a Transwoman is an Anxiety Inducing Experience.
I am a frequent traveler, and I’ve come to loathe the experience. While I usually look forward to the positive experiences I’m certain to have at my destinations, getting there is always a problem; More specifically, getting through TSA.
We’ve heard these stories before. Mine is not unique, really, but symptomatic of a greater issue in which gender itself is still a determining factor in our ability to accomplish simple, but rudimentary (If not tedious) tasks without it having to become an panic inducing episode. Is it because I’m especially sensitive? No, not really. I’ve been called everything under the sun- things I had to google. Over the years, as a person on the fringes of a society, trying to exist within constructs of man-made societal rules, I’m accustomed to ridicule or mockery. I mean, 3 million people watched me run from two attacking roosters on youtube. You can imagine the comments section.
Whereas most people find airline travel an arduous task as they scramble around last minute, combing over every detail with great precision, double checking they have their toothbrush and deodorant… my anxiety happens at at the point of security. Picture it: Some stern looking TSA agent points firmly at the round machine that looks like something out of Star Trek and demands you step inside and put your hands over your head. Your heart is in your throat. Your stomach is queasy. Your breathing quickens and you know whats coming…
You step out on the other side, and just as each time before, there’s a problem. They must pat you down; From your backside, between your legs and down your thighs, every crevice is palpated. During one experience, the male agent called over a female agent from another post as I tried to explain to him that I was a Transgender woman. After staring at me with mouth gaping for a moment, clearly stunned, he dismissed the female agent saying “Nevermind, it’s a guy.” And proceeded to pat me down himself. I remember feeling so vulnerable, embarrassed and powerless in that moment. This was about 5 years ago, of course, and anyone who knows me is completely aware my courage has outgrown my ability to run, which isn’t always a great thing.
You stand in line watching others walk into that tubular x-ray machine and exit without incident. Never the situation with me, or most any Transwomen, especially those who are pre-op. In 2016, Mia Satya, traveling as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Washington D.C. -who happens to be a Transwoman- was detained at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. After her scanning, she was subjected to a fully nude inspection of her genitalia by TSA officers.
The process, as I’m told is this; prior to your entry into the scanner, the operator must mark one of two options on her panel. “Male” or “Female.” If you’re a Transwoman, you’re going to get flagged for having masses where the machine believes you should not. It could be her breast padding, or the bobby pins holding down her wig, or, worst of all, her genitals. So, she is removed from the queue, questioned and physically searched by authorities.
I’ve had them go through my bags of makeup and wigs, spray my hands for explosive residue and force me to disclose, in front of everyone behind and in front of me, my gender status in an effort to explain why I triggered their damn machine. I’m Transgender, not a terrorist. Their machine cannot differentiate between the two.
It wasn’t long ago, another Transwoman, Shadi Petosky, endured even worse. Flying on American Airlines out of Orlando, she was stopped by the TSA’s all-knowing space X-ray device. She was detained immediately and she live-tweeted the entire incident, as it happened, bringing it to national attention. Their machine, of which she was registered as a “Female” before stepping inside, detected what the TSA described as an “Anomaly” — that being her male genitalia. They proceeded to escort her to a holding room under the watchful eye of a security officer as though she were guilty of committing a crime. They attempted to take her phone as she documented her plight, but she refused to allow them to confiscate it. She explained she wanted to have a record of the experience. The police were called. They also claimed they found explosives residue on her hands and also called in an explosives specialist after she had endured multiple, intimate searches. Finally, they did take her phone, explaining it was necessary for “Screening.”
All in all, she was held for almost an hour and missed her flight, told to re-book and endure screening all over again, and eventually even told to leave the airport altogether.
As I said, these incidents aren’t unusual for us Transfolks. Typically, we don’t document them. Thus, they go unnoticed and unaddressed.
In response to the public outcry over how Miss Petosky- and other Transwomen who came out to share their stories, have been treated during security screenings at airports, the TSA released a statement defining Trans travelers as “Anomalous” and they would be treated as such. Inevitable backlash over the insensitivity of using an aggressively dehumanizing term to describe transgender bodies resulted in them to, once again, change the way they reference us as we pass through their scanner. Now, known officially by the TSA as “Alarm!”
Sadly, not much else changed. Especially the dread a Trans person experiences as they approach the spinner-of-doom. In my last experience, at Detroit International Airport, I infuriated the conservative sensibilities of their robotics again… and as I came out the other side for the anticipated search and intensive questioning, I explained that I was transgender. At that point, to my surprise, without as much fanfare as I’d been previously central to, the agent said, “We have to mark you on the machine as you present, next time just tell us to mark “Male” on the scanner.”
In that moment, I just wanted to hug her. It seemed so simple, and might have saved me years of nerve wracking flight experiences. It was like she told me there was a simple answer to a complicated issue I’d been dealing with for years, and all that I had to do was click my heels together three times and ask someone to push a different magic button.
With more clarity and a vast distance from that episode, I realize I should not have been so overjoyed. I only realized in the aftermath that what I actually had to do was lie. I had to betray my identity, my mind, my spirit, my sovereignty over own person which millions fight for each day, just to board an airplane. I have to be a “Male.” Or, alternatively, present “Male” in order to pass through like the thousands who do each day that never have to even think about it. I had to pretend to be something I didn’t want to be- something I was not- in order to conform to the expectations of their machine or be consequentially punished. It’s not as easy as one would expect, to approach a stranger as a presenting Transgender female and say, “I’m a male.” Not when you’ve been battling that beast for the greatest sum of your years; from preacher’s pulpits to senate floors, for the right to be a woman. It’s more than a bruised ego.
The most emotionally challenging aspect of this entire story is that, in the bigger picture, this is just one, small obstacle we have yet to overcome; One of many that segregate us from “Normal” society, and it’s a challenge that most people will never have to experience because their greatest travel burden is remembering to pack clean underwear.