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

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.

If you are somebody who cleanly and comfortably nestles into the gender binary of male or female, experiencing gender identity or gender presentation challenges may be difficult to understand or comprehend. It reminds me of how it can be difficult for a white person to truly understand or comprehend the experiences of being a person of color. However, for those of of us who do not fit neatly into what the world has taught as male or female, we live with these challenges everyday. Many of us experience anxiety when having to enter a public restroom in order to take care of the basic human function of urinating. Many of us endure strange looks and overhear snickers and judgmental comments as we pass by. Many of us feel the nails scraping on chalkboard type of feeling when somebody uses the wrong pronoun to refer to us; the uncomfortable feeling when we are called "him" but very much identify as "her." And now, many of us are subjected to embarrassing and inconvenient extra airport security measures at times because of a machine built for a gender binary of male or female that fails to acknowledge all of the rich diversity that exists in-between.

My hope is that our world and all of its people, technologies and processes continue to evolve to become much more affirming of diversity. Nobody should be treated as different or less than, nor be subject to discrimination or unfair treatment based on gender identity or gender presentation, along of course with age, skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, culture, illness, etc. Nobody should have to worry about this kind of experience when flying, let alone when living as themselves in a world where it isn't always easy to do so.

If any of the terms I used or experiences I described around gender in this blog are new to you, please take a moment to look them up and become educated. Becoming educated can eradicate ignorance based out of lack of information or experience and can help you to be more of an affirming, safe place in this world for the millions of people like me.