For several years after coming out as transgender, I had prosthetic breasts. They were in many ways the entry point to my being perceived as a woman, and quickly became part of my extended sense of self. But while I treated these prosthetics as if they were an extension of my body, for airport security they represented an unaccounted for, and therefore dangerous, anomaly.
This was my experience with the TSA, or to be exact, it is an amalgamation of several different incidents that were all more or less the same. I know that many transgender people reading this will have had similar experiences or worse.
At the checkpoint, after placing my belongings in trays to be x-ray searched, I would be asked to enter the body scanner. The scanner, though its action is not as tangible as being “patted down,” is no less invasive. Given that its purpose is to see through my clothes ‒ to render me nude to discover any secrets my body may possess, I would argue that the scanner is more completely destructive of my privacy than the “pat-down.” The fact that the more than naked image it produces of me has been substituted by an abstract outline does not fundamentally change this fact, it only mitigates the extent to which it has to be acknowledged and reckoned with. But while I have qualms about the utter destruction of my privacy, my consent is guaranteed because I need to get to my flight on time. So, I entered the scanner.
It may be that the presumption of gender as binary and biological is nowhere more consequential than in airport security. There, as I was being scanned, my image was interpreted almost instantaneously by software that assumes I am either anatomically a man or a woman. This assumption will subsequently determine what appears to be normal or abnormal on my body. When stripped of clothes, my body’s ambiguous combination of gendered traits, like those of so many transgender bodies, turns the assumption that gender is a binary anatomical characteristic into an insolvable paradox. To the scanner, am I a woman or a man? Either way, some part of me will be identified as anomalous. When I had silicon prostheses, it was inevitably the breasts.
Upon exiting the scanner, I may have been asked if I consented to the subsequent “pat down” of my breasts, but since, as before, my consent was already guaranteed, the question would have been irrelevant.
If, for a moment, we disregard the formalism with which the law considers this matter, to have one’s breasts groped when consent is meaningless is sexual assault. It is sexual assault because it is a violation of my bodily autonomy specifically at a site where anatomy and sexuality interact. It is an act of violence, if not by causing physical injury, then by eliminating my agency as a person over whether or not I allow others to touch me sexually. That is, it negates a fundamental aspect of my personhood. This is true experientially, even as the courts consider this kind of search as being legally justified, and therefore not to be sexual assault. Sadly, having experienced both a sexual assault in high school and multiple searches of my breasts by TSA agents, I can testify that the distinction between being subjected to one or the other is primarily a matter of location. Both are about equally unpleasant, regardless of their differing motivations and legality.
The only real agency I was given each time my breasts were “patted down” was whether or not it was done in public. I have always chosen the public option, for two reasons. The first is that I assume the existence of potential spectators – no matter how much their eyes may be diverted – might function as a check on abuse. The second is that, since I am spiteful, I want the person feeling up my chest to feel self-conscious, even ashamed.
It is a consequence of my passing for cisgender, more or less, that the person groping me has always been a woman, and while this has made the person less intimidating, it is only superficially better than being groped by a man. To be groped is to be groped, no matter who gropes you, after all.
My partner’s experience with the TSA has been similarly bad. One day, when returning home from college, my partner––who is nonbinary and uses any pronouns––had his crotch identified as an area of suspicion by a scanner. If I had been there with him, I do not know how I would have reacted, but I do know that I was outraged when I heard about it.
The sheer extent of the violence transgender people experience from the TSA underscores the necessity for thinking about how we have, as a society, elevated the interests of national security over human safety. This is an issue that should not concern transgender people alone. The effective suspension of not only privacy but also bodily autonomy, at airport security checkpoints, necessarily endangers everyone. Its violence only becomes uniquely evident when the ambiguity of the transgender body is identified as a threat that requires action.
“What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”
––Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition