Some days are worse than others. I've talked a lot on my blog about what I experience as a butch lesbian, specifically how people interact with me when they see that I don't conform to the gender identities that they expect. I feel all lined up on the inside -- I am a woman physically, and I feel like a woman -- but I don't always look like a woman, or at least what society expects a woman to look like. The expectations go like this:
Big and tall? Male.
Short hair? Male.
Strong, unapologetic presence (i.e., swagger)? Male.
Soft face? Female.
Woman's voice? Female.
Breasts and no Adam's apple? Female.
All of this frequently adds up to confusion at best, and hostility at worst, when people encounter butch lesbians. There have been really great pieces written by various butch bloggers about the horrific bathroom incidents that we butches routinely experience. The bathroom really seems to bring out the worst in everyone, doesn't it? I have also written about how my femme girlfriends have experienced their own version of this confusion and/or hostility; it's unpleasant, even infuriating, for our femmes, too.
So why am I ranting now? Not long ago a gay flight attendant called me "sir." Right. Duh. Whatever. Not long thereafter, on a different plane, another flight attendant called me "sir," and she didn't even acknowledge me when I corrected her. Dumb people suck. But the real reason for my rant is the TSA. I'm going to tell you why I hate them. Yes, "hate" is a very strong word, and I never use it casually. Indeed, it's considered a bad word in my house, and the kids can't use it. I use it here only to convey the depth of my anger.
On at least three occasions prior to the incident that inspired this post, I went through the body scanner at airport security and then had to wait a moment longer or be rescanned. I knew that this was because they thought I was a guy, but then my body scan showed a body other than what they expected -- boobs, and no penis, to be specific. As a result, waiting in the security line when there is a body scan ahead has become quite anxiety-inducing for me. Will they get it today? I wonder. Will they ask themselves while looking at the scan, "Where is that guy's penis?" or, "Why does he have boobs?" Ugh. How embarrassed will I be?
So on this particular occasion, I prepared for the security line as I always do. I am a rule follower, and I don't want anyone to have to wait for me, so I always get it right: liquids out; laptop in the bin, all by itself, nothing on top of it; briefcase directly on the belt; shoes and jacket off; and bracelets, rings, watch, wallet and belt removed and put away. I saw the body scanner ahead, so I also took my charms out of my pocket, even though they don't set off the metal detector. Though stressed, I was ready.
I was sent to the body scanner. I stood there, making sure to shadow the drawing on the wall in front of me with my arms up, holding my breath. Three seconds. Rule follower. I stepped out and waited in that spot where we all wait while some anonymous stranger decides whether we are a threat, whether our body scan matches up with expectations. Well, it turned out that mine did not. I knew it was coming, because I'd spotted two "alarm" squares show up on the chest of the male figure on the screen, right where my boobs would be.
The guy keeping me from my plane (you know, the one who stands there right in front of you and tells you when you are free from that little pen) asked, "Would you mind going through again?"
"No," I replied, with dread rising in my stomach and chest (where my womanly boobs are, right where everyone can see them). I turned around and waited for the person behind me to be scanned. From this spot I could see that the woman running the machine had to push a button on the screen before it started. Now I could see that I'd been right. There were only two buttons on the screen, for "male" and "female." They were even color-coded, to make it idiot-proof, I suppose. What colors do you think they were? Blue and pink, respectively. So, so creative and forward-thinking, TSA!
The passenger behind me was lucky that he was all lined up as a man. The woman operating the machine hit the "male" button. Zip, bang, boom! The man got to step out and go on his merry, male-identified way. Now it was my turn. Whee!
The woman signaled for me to step back inside the scanner, and then -- here's the kicker -- she asked me, "Would you mind if I ask you if you are a man or a woman?"
Really? Yes, really. And hell yes I mind. Wouldn't you mind? Hey, are you a man or a woman? Are you a freak? I can't tell. Hey, do you have a penis to go with those breasts? Yes, I mind. I would mind. And that day I minded.
But remember that I was in a little pen, waiting to get to my flight. I couldn't get to the rest of my day without answering her, and if I made trouble for her by, I don't know, yelling, "Of course I mind, you ignorant fool!" then I wouldn't be making my plane. And on top of that, there was a flock of people there who weren't friends of mine, who would assume I was a terrorist, or a jerk, or whatever they would assume, and who would certainly be irritated if I caused a delay or made a scene.
You may be thinking, But you are a big, tough, outspoken butch. Why didn't you give her a piece of your mind? Well, have you ever been pulled over by a cop for a traffic violation that you didn't do, and you know that you were pulled over because of profiling, or because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe because the cop was just bored? And did you scream at the cop? Did you refuse to give the cop your license? No. You can't do that or you will get arrested. And if I'd done anything like that at airport security, I most certainly would have been removed to a private room and strip searched or detained. No matter what, I would not have been making my plane.
So I didn't say what I wanted to say. Instead, I simply said, "No. I'm a woman." With that I was ushered into the machine, where I stood once again, making sure to shadow the drawing on the wall in front of me with my arms up, holding my breath. Three seconds. Even when hurt and angry, I am a rule follower. This time she pushed the "female" button (it's easy to find, being pink and all), and my body lined up with it. No little squares on my chest this time. The machine now validated my very womanhood: She's a she, and she's got bumps where she should, and none where she shouldn't. Whew. What a relief.
Are you kidding me? I'm laughing now and writing about it to try to work through the pain of it. How crappy is this? I can't really explain adequately how much I hate the TSA.
After the body scan, I waited for my belongings to come out of the belt, and after I'd collected them, I walked over to the bench. I was numb. No, not numb. I was actually feeling lots of things: bad things, painful things. Really, I was in shock. I was embarrassed, and I could not believe what had just happened. I walk through life proud and tall. I am certainly insecure, but I am never ashamed of myself or apologetic about who I am. Ever. I won't apologize for not looking the way you think I should. And if you don't like it, you will not be in my life, or, if you must be in my life, you will get the barest possible minimum of involvement from me, and certainly none of my heart (unless you read my blog -- plenty of heart there).
But this situation was different. It wasn't like when some idiot calls me a dyke from across the street. In that situation I can just say, "Eff off!" or, even better, "Thank you!" But at the airport I didn't have my friends with me, or a girlfriend to squeeze my hand and whisper, "It doesn't matter, baby. It's OK." I was without coping mechanisms in that situation. So what did I do?
First, I tweeted about how angry I was, including to the TSA. Then I took a few minutes to call a very good friend for help. She was on my side, and I teared up as I told her what had happened. Sigh. It couldn't be right that it had happened that way. And I wrote, of course. It made me feel better immediately. Thank you for listening, by the way.
I am filing a complaint with the TSA. They need to know what this feels like. They need to make some changes. There should be another way to do this, another way to handle those of us who don't conform to gender stereotypes, so that we don't feel less than human. I'll let you know what the TSA says. How awesome would it be if something came of this?
Until then -- and I've said this before, but it bears repeating -- remember that it's butch to be yourself, no matter the cost or what some stupid machine thinks of you. Be butch.
A version of this blog post appeared on Tristan's personal blog, ButchOnTap.