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TSA Screening Reveals Transgender People's Experiences for All of Us

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This post is co-authored by Lambda Legal's Deputy Legal Director, Hayley Gorenberg, and Transgender Rights Attorney, M. Dru Levasseur

A fellow transgender rights activist ran a training scenario on fairness in the workplace where he demanded of a coworker: "I need to know what's in your pants! How can I continue working with you on this project with you unless I know what's in your pants?!"

The scenario cued laughter and learning -- learning about what it's like for transgender people to be subjected to rude speculation and questioning about their genitals, often without any apparent consciousness that doing so is invasive, upsetting, and entirely unnecessary.

It's hard to train cisgender, (non-transgender) people on the topic. But has the TSA handed us a learning tool, just in time for us to give thanks around the nation?

The TSA's invasive x-ray and manual screenings have generated headlines, op-eds and cartoons about sex abuse at the airport, and even a Saturday Night Live spoof on sex-play as a bonus when you buy your ticket.

Fearing that transgender people may be harassed in the course of screening, the National Center for Transgender Equality has been working with the TSA and has published an online TSA guide loaded with helpful information, including points such as

"You have the right to have manual search procedures performed by an officer who is of the same gender as the gender you are currently presenting yourself as. This does not depend on the gender listed on your ID, or on any other factor. If TSA officials are unsure who should pat you down, ask to speak to a supervisor and calmly insist on the appropriate officer."

and

"Foreign objects under clothing such as binding, packing or prosthetic devices may show up as unknown or unusual images on a body scan or patdown, which may lead TSA personnel to do additional screening. This does not mean that you cannot fly with these items, only they may lead to further screening. Be prepared to give a brief description of what they are or check them in your luggage so that you can minimize scrutiny and delays."

The concern for transgender people's well-being is understandable, given a track record of rank discrimination. And yet, we wonder whether this national experience could be an avenue for cisgender people's understanding, as well. Every wince at how inappropriate this invasion of privacy feels is a current of connection to many trans people's daily experiences. It's a great leveler of sorts.

One of the hardest things right now about being out as a transgender person is triggering people's imagining your body. The discomfort of people focusing on your genitals, seeking to inspect them, compare what they are with what's "expected," see whether they are OK enough, or "right." The shifted gaze, to the chest, the crotch... Now everyone is having that experience. Could the TSA procedures also shift the mind to the everyday experiences of transgender people, whose genitals are "imaged" by acquaintances without apology?

In Lambda Legal's ongoing case challenging the firing of our client Vandy Beth Glenn from her job in the Georgia legislative counsel's office, our deposition of the top lawyer in that office typified the total lack of consciousness of how transgender people's bodies are "open for comment" in ways we would never accept for others.

In explaining firing Vandy Beth for transitioning, her boss said, "It makes me think about things I don't like to think about, particularly at work... I think it's unsettling to think of someone dressed in women's clothing with male sexual organs inside that clothing."

Why was Vandy Beth's employer spending time imagining her body under her clothes, and why did he feel free to discuss it as a supposedly legitimate workplace activity, and even a supposedly legitimate reason to fire her from her job?

Standing in line with hundreds of other people waiting to be frisked, viewed, and prodded by the TSA, for once it is not just transgender people who are stressing out about a privacy violation or judgment. Some people in line have no inhibitions about being naked in front of TSA employees; others seem to be gearing up to punch someone over the idea. We suggest it's important that we not make assumptions about whom this affects most.

When, for once, we are all treated to the same invasive inspection, we question assuming it will be worse for transgender people. We challenge the suggestion that transgender people should be more concerned -- or potentially ashamed -- about their bodies. And ultimately, we invite using this shared moment to cultivate understanding and respect for the vastness of human diversity -- and to get comfortable with it.