Flying the Not So Friendly Skies
By Mila Madison
Most people are just annoyed by the inconvenience as the TSA agents treat us all like we are criminals. For me, as a transgender woman, it is a whole other thing. My daughter begins to worry as this is her first post 911 flight. She is worried about what is going to happen to her or that she might do something wrong as she goes through the security check. I am trying to be strong for her, but I can’t help myself from feeling anxiety as we get closer to the big security scanner.
I start to think about Laverne Cox and the experience she went through in Texas just a few weeks back. I mean she is Laverne Cox, a big star, and I am just little old Mila Madison. Her twitter post is now flashing through my mind.
And if things couldn’t get worse I start to realize that I am in Orlando International Airport and I think of Shadi. For those of you who haven’t heard the story, Shadi Petosky is the transgender woman who was harassed by the TSA in Orlando after she set off an alarm while going through the security scanner. The TSA agents began to argue amongst themselves over what to do with her after she revealed she was transgender. Some wanted her to go back through the scanner with it set for a male gender while others cited it was against regulations. She had to undergo multiple pat downs and a thorough search of her luggage. They then called the police and asked her to leave the airport. Luckily the police came to her defense and she was able to stay. Though she missed her flight, the airline gave her a ticket to the next one and the story ended up in the New York Times.
“THE PROBLEM WITH THESE SECURITY SCANNERS IS THAT THE TSA AGENT HAS TO SELECT THE GENDER FOR THE PERSON WHO IS BEING SCANNED.”
The problem with these security scanners is that the TSA Agent has to select the gender for the person who is being scanned. The selection is entirely up to the agent, but the machine is designed to only work with one’s assigned gender at birth. So basically if you have an “F” on your license but happen to have a penis you are doomed. Same thing if you have an “M” and breasts. The New York Times article also mentions Gunner Scott, a transgender male who was forced to take his shirt off in that scenario.
So now I have managed to take my shoes off and put all my belongings in the gloomy grey tray they supply. I slide my tray along with my carry-on bag down the metal rollers and through the bag scanner. I am now up next to go through the machine. The TSA Agent calls to me to go in and put my hands up while spreading my legs apart. The machine scans me and my worst nightmare scenario is realized. The alarm goes off and I am now surrounded by three TSA Agents.
The agents show me the areas where I alarmed. The front “genital” area and the back as well. A double whammy. I can now sense the TSA Agents are almost as uncomfortable as I am with this situation. I suggested the alarm in the back was most likely due to the metal embroidery on the back pocket of my jeans and that I hope the front alarm is just the button on the front of my jeans. I now begin to wonder when I should out myself as transgender to the entire airport as it is not going well. The TSA Agents then agreed to let me scan again while advising if it goes off this time there will be a thorough search. They told me to pull my pants up tight and make sure I spread my legs enough as I go in again. I am already mortified as there is about a thousand people looking at me at this point.
“NEXT THEY TAKE A POWDER SAMPLE OF MY HANDS TO SEARCH FOR BOMB RESIDUE.”
Fortunately for me, only the back pocket alarms this time. They pat me down on my backside and decide it is indeed my jeans that setoff the alarm. Next they take a powder sample of my hands to search for bomb residue. After finding no evidence of any bomb residue they let me go on my way. I was then able to exhale.
This is nothing new to most people who are transgender and have to fly. Though I realize we all need to be safe, it does concern me that our scanning system relies not only on gender, but it that it puts the decision of which gender on the shoulders of the TSA Agents. I also realize the TSA Agents are people too and they are just as uncomfortable due to the systems that are in place.
It is not that I am uncomfortable with who and what I am. I have no problem explaining it to be honest. Being transgender we sure have our share of awkward moments, especially when dealing wit Government Agencies. It is just that the way the TSA security check is setup. It is so open and you have to go through the process with all these other people looking on. Even worse, my children have to go through watching it play out. There has to be a better way.
So this time I made it through the TSA. A near miss as they say. Next time I may not be so lucky. That being said it was a jarring enough of an experience to make me think about when I have to travel next. I think next time I will be taking the train instead.
What can we do about it?
Well first it is best to know your rights. Our friends at The National Center for Transgender Equality have some great information for you.
Contact your State Representatives and ask them to improve the process. You can find your Representatives and their contact information at OpenCongress.org
Stay safe and keep fighting for all of us!
Love and peace,