I've just had another experience with the TSA. This time, I am in Detroit and headed home from a business trip. I am tired and ready to go home. I miss my wife, who is home in Scotland for awhile. I got to the airport in plenty of time to not be rushed, which turned out to be a good thing today.
The first piece that I wrote for Huffington Post was titled "Why I Hate the TSA." In that post I railed against the gender conforming system and lack of training. I wondered why -- when so many people do not match gender stereotypes -- we have a system involving a pink and blue button. Why the millimeter wave machine has been programmed to raise alarm whenever someone's body doesn't match up just right with the database. I filed a complaint with the TSA, following all their stated procedures, and I followed up several months later to ask about the complaint (they still have not replied).
My experience this morning was even more involved and invasive than my painful experience several years ago, but it was quite different, and I think it makes sense to share that.
I walked into the machine after carefully removing everything required. I even pulled up my jeans because recently there have been several rescans since I do not have a penis and the machine has called this out in some alarm. When the agents handle this well, it makes me laugh. I understand that when one's jeans are baggy, the machine has more trouble, so I hike them up on my waist. I step into the machine and raise my arms. The male agent says "ma'am" so I am confident that he will push the pink button. "Please wait here a moment." Yup, I know the drill.
The female agent standing between me and my flight looks with concern at the machine so I turn around to see what she sees. There on the screen are several yellow boxes of alarm: one on my wrist (a watch), one on the center of my chest (my necklace), and a big box on my groin. I laugh a bit and ask her if it was because I don't have a penis. "I'm not even packing," I joked. She seemed to understand and smiled at me. I go through the machine again but the yellow boxes remain. There is some discussion between her, the male agent and the supervisor. I will need to have an extensive pat down because they could not clear the "anomaly." We are just waiting for a second female agent. It took a few minutes.
I notice that the agent handling the bag scanner is searching my briefcase. I politely ask him what he is looking for, and joke that I lost my multi-tool last week when I forgot and left it in my bag; so I know there's nothing like that in there. He doesn't answer but says he needs to scan it again. Seems odd, but certainly within their procedures. My bag gets scanned again, and the female agent collects my things from him. The scanning agent catches her as we are walking away to hand over my tablet, which he had taken out to scan. This causes me concern as to what else might have been removed and not collected. Nothing else, he says.
The second female agent joins us and we walk to the dreaded private screening room. Now, I am a law-abiding American. As a rule follower, I know I have nothing to fear, but still private rooms in airports have always scared me. They seem like places -- at least in the movies -- where you go in, bad things happen to you, and you stay a long time without any family or counsel. I have never been in such a room until today. They close the door and lock it. All the while, the agents are explaining to me what is happening.
They describe exactly how the extensive pat-down will go. How I am to stand (arms out, palms up, feet more than shoulder length apart), how she will touch me, in what order, and where. I am instructed to turn around and face the table in the proper position. The comic inside my head (read this as coping mechanism) jokes silently that in a different situation this could be hot, but it is not hot. Not at all. Neither is it scary, because they were so careful to tell me what to expect, and even as she was conducting the pat-down, she kept a running narration of what she was doing to me. I tried to keep it light and joked that I'd like them not to mess up my hair. She kindly followed along and said something about trying not to while she patted down my head. Next my collar, shoulders, arms, wrists, palms, armpits, back, and side. I had to lift my shirt for my waistband to be felt. This was followed by her patting down, squeezing, or running her hands down my legs, butt, and groin, and then I turned around. She went through the same routine for the front of my body.
I have had the standard (quite personal) pat-down on several occasions, but never this extensive one. I won't say that it was pleasant, but they were so professional that it was business-like. Albeit the business of violating my privacy, but still they were business-like. It is a very odd feeling to have someone touch all of the parts of you. Parts no one touches but my wife. When was the last time someone touched your thigh or side? Just think how you feel when a stranger bumps into you, or you accidentally touch someone in a shop or on the street.
The second agent went to scan my shoes. While she was gone I commented to the first agent that it is very frustrating as a person who does not conform to gender stereotypes to deal with this. I told her that I fly all the time, and that I have to be rescanned about half the time. I wondered out loud what she would have done if I had been packing or if I was transitioning. She understood and said that sometimes it is hard -- especially when someone has had facial surgery. We had an interesting discussion about people in transition, or packing. She was clearly aware. She understood, at least in part, what I was dealing with as a gender non-conforming person, and I understood, at least in part, that she is an agent trying to do her job and be respectful of people like me with whom she comes in contact.
My shoes came back fine as did my bag and my person, of course, and I was free to go. The whole experience was so odd. I made sure to thank them both for being professional, and they were both very appreciative of my friendly attitude. I am not exactly sure what my take away from this experience is. Maybe that even when a system is flawed and ignores gender non-conforming people like me, that the people who are in charge of enforcing and using that system can still make a connection and keep our experience from being too painful. Is that too sunshine and rainbows? You tell me.