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Gender Identity and Travel

 

Airport Security and Gender Identity: Time to Fly into Embracing Gender Diversity

 

  • Brooke M. Feldman – Philadelphian living in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder. Addiction recovery advocate. Behavioral health consultant and trainer. #PayingItForward

 

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I stepped into the airport security scanner capsule thing with my arms positioned up in the air like a captured bandit. I marveled in my mind about what had been a fast moving line through security and was happy to be completing this glorious final step in the process. As I stepped out of the capsule however, I was unexpectedly halted by a TSA agent for what he stated had been flagged on the scanner as a “groin anomaly.” This was actually now the second time I’ve experienced being flagged for such a thing at the airport, and I made the same joke of “wow, that sounds like something I should go see a doctor about!” only to be met with the same lack of smile or laughter from the TSA agent in front of me.

The clearly unamused TSA agent then asked me if I had anything hidden in my groin area. This strange question led to one of those weird momentary feelings of guilt despite knowing that you haven’t done anything wrong. That fleeting feeling of guilt was quickly followed by a frenzied mental perusal though a colorful checklist of possibilities for my groin anomaly. This list ranged from actually considering whether I had put something up there and forgotten about it, to wondering if my parents had hidden something from me since birth, to remembering an episode of X-Files and trying to recall whether I too had been abducted by aliens and implanted with something. I ultimately decided that I was pretty confident I did not have anything hidden up in my groin area and answered “no, there is nothing there that I’m aware of.”

After receiving a slightly embarrassing public pat-down, my hands were then swabbed to be “tested for explosives.” As the TSA agent swabbed my hands, I couldn’t shake the image of somebody actually smuggling dynamite up into their uterus. After the swabbing was finished and placed through a fancy machine, I was asked to “please have a seat over there, the supervisor will be with you shortly.” I inquired about what was going on and was informed that my hands tested positive for explosives. At that point I grew a little concerned about my current predicament, wondering if I needed a lawyer or something, and sat on the chair like a kid on timeout awaiting their larger sentence. After a few minutes of waiting, three TSA agents came over and asked me to follow them without touching anything for a more thorough search. I was escorted into a small room where one of the agents explained to me exactly how she was going to be searching me — all of me — with certain parts of my body receiving the front of her hand and other parts receiving the back. At this point I felt like I may be on some hidden camera reality TV show as I stood spread eagle and allowed myself to be searched in a fairly intrusive way. Thankfully this touchy feely TSA agent had a little more of a sense of humor and laughed at some of my nervous jokes that included “this reminds me of an experience I had one Friday night” and “ooh, that kind of feels good.” In the end, my groin anomaly and I were deemed good to go, and I was allowed to gather the little bit of dignity I had left along with my belongings and move on with my journey.

Once I was settled in at the gate, I decided to look up this whole “groin anomaly” business. I mean, setting off an alert for this thing one time would have been an anomaly, but a second time, particularly with today’s outcome – well, that’s less an anomaly and more like a problem! After performing a quick Google search, I was astounded by what I found:

The “male or female” sensors on scanners do not account for those falling outside the either-or gender binary. (1)

Transgender persons will be screened as he or she presents at the security checkpoint. The advanced imaging technology used to screen passengers has software that looks at the anatomy of men and women differently. If there is an alarm, TSA officers are trained to clear the alarm, not the individual. (2)

The body scan machines used at most airports nationwide feature pink and blue start buttons, which activate computer algorithms designed to screen female and male passengers. If a TSA officer presses the wrong button or if a passenger has body characteristics of more than one gender, unexpected body shapes may register as anomalies. (3)

It didn’t take me look to recognize that my gender presentation likely led to my “groin anomaly.” As a gender non-conforming female who presents in a way that would be unfortunately labeled by much of the world as more masculine than feminine, I experience challenges regarding my gender identity and presentation on a daily basis. These challenges range from strange looks when entering the restroom to being called sir pretty regularly, and lots of things in between.

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