THE BLOG
03/07/2013 04:52 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Violating Sex And Gender Norms While Traveling

I'm a transsexual who also identifies as transgender. Traveling by air two or three times a year, I have had expectations of insensitive treatment for the the TSA, and once actually had an experience with a full body search with them. However, I worked to turn that experience into a positive one -- and, not just a positive experience for myself but as a teaching moment for at least two TSA officers that for them, may help my trans subcommunity of the broader LGBT community.

Let me begin by saying that I "pass" as female in almost all settings -- that's including in bathrooms. I definitely passed with three TSA officers back on that day that I was body searched. When I traveled there was no piece of documentation that I carried that said I was anything but female.

When going through a body scanner I actually left seven cents in my right front pocket. So, the TSA officer who was at the scanner station said I was going to be given a full body search. I was taken to a separate room with two female TSA officers. Before they began the search, I disclosed that I was transgender and that they may feel something that wasn't normally expected by to be on a female body when they touched my crotch. They asked me then if I wanted male officers to conduct the search, and I said no: I said I'd prefer female officers to do the search. I was pleasant and smiling when they did the search, and they were pleasant in return.

They learned something about trans people being human; I learned that I could be treated by TSA officers when I outed myself.

Autumn Sandeen Being Arrested After November 15, 2010 'Get Equal Thirteen' Arrest

I haven't always been treated well by other federal law enforcement officers. I twice handcuffed myself to the White House fence in my female U.S. Navy uniform for repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I participated in the GetEqual Six and GetEqual Thirteen protests. The first time I went jail, a Park Police officer referred to me by the epithet "Impersonator," and a Federal Marshal mocked me, calling me the pejoratives "it" and "shim." On my second trip to jail, I was body searched above the waist by a female officer, and searched by a male officer below the waist -- that after asking that a female officer search me.

I'm so aware that many of my community sisters in LGBTQIA community don't "pass" as female. And, I just don't mean my trans community sisters; there are many butch lesbians who don't "pass" as female by societal gender expression norms. And beyond trans women and butch lesbians, I have trans community siblings that identify as genderqueer which are folk who identify as both male and female, neither male or female, somewhere on the continuum between male and female, or gender fluid on that same continuum.

In American society we have sex and gender norms. "We," in the societal sense of "we," have a binary division of male and female, and given visual and voice clues of the people we meet decide whether folk are male or female within seconds. We consciously notice physical features such as hairlines, and unconsciously notice features such as the presence or absence of brow ridges and breasts, the size and shape of noses and lips, prominence of high cheekbones, skin texture, height, big or small boned, and size of hands, feet and butts. Plus we look at gender expression, such as hairstyle, presence or absence of make-up, and how feminine or masculine the clothes appear to be based on gender norms.

Autumn Sandeen as VA San Diego Patient Health Library, February 23, 2003

Early in my transition, by these standards I didn't "pass" as female more than I did "pass." Sometimes I was referred to by female pronouns, but more often by male pronouns. And, sometimes I was asked if I were male of female or what pronouns would I prefer.

When I have been called "sir," "he," or "him" in my life, I first gently corrected those who misgendered me. Sometimes those who misgendered me would self-correct; sometimes they wouldn't, and would misgender me once or twice more. With conscious intent, I expressed on the second misgendering a level of irritation, and on the third misgendering I would express controlled anger.

"We" in American society who don't conform to societal sex and gender norms seem to be presented with what, in my opinion, should be a false choice: either we have surgeries to deal with the physical gender clues that functionally misgender us and change our gender expression to fit more closely with societal sex and gender norms or we who don't conform to societal sex and gender norms must accept when people misgender us.

Given the choice of someone presuming my gender incorrectly or that someone asking me what pronouns I'd prefer that he, she, or ze referred to me as, I'd prefer to be asked. Being asked means I don't have to enter teaching mode about trans people and gender expression. However, when I am misgendered I'd prefer to be a teacher than to embrace hurt or anger; being a teacher can change hearts and minds about me, the trans woman, as well as about the we of trans community.

And as a teacher, I likely changed the hearts and minds of two TSA officers. I consider that a win.