Blogs Feb 26, 2013 at 9:09 am


"Waaaaaaaaaa ! My life is so tough. Waaaaaaaaaaa!" [sob]
Dealing with the TSA always feels a bit humiliating and unnecessary, especially when they pull you aside for any reason. I'm sure it is worse if you look "different" somehow.

The TSA sucks, and it sucks that they've programmed binary gender into their useless, intrusive and expensive scanning machines, but that TSA official did nothing wrong. She had no way of knowing she wasn't dealing with a non-op transman, who would have looked identical to a butch woman. In cases like this I usually say "what pronoun do you prefer?" like I'm asking if someone takes sugar in their coffee.

Personally, I always prefer a polite and matter-of-fact inquiry over an assumption. Curiosity is what creates justice. It's the opposite of prejudice.
TSA, paying people close to minimum wage who can't even understand the basic concept of gender identity. How can you deal with the public in a government is forcing you to touch genitals way and not understand that some people consider themselves more humans than attached to a gender? Clueless worthless wastes of space. If you're going to be a branch of the government tasked with fondling our genitals until the terrorists stop bombing us learn some fucking manners. I'm glad I don't fly, I'd rather just not consider it an option, I'll go to Europe by driving to Canada or Mexico, fuck the TSA useless pieces of shit.
Hmmm, this is a tricky one. On the one hand, it would be nice if English had respectful gender-neutral pronouns and terms of address. But that would require that people not mind having their gender seen as ambiguous or undefined; TH did seem to want to be identified as female.

On the other hand, it is hard for me to fault someone for politely asking if they genuinely aren't sure or are confused. I admit that while I consider myself to be queer and LGBT friendly, if I had to address someone directly and I wasn't sure, I would quietly and politely ask out of fear of offending. That's the default for a diverse society since no one is psychic. And it could even be possible that the TSA person was trans-friendly and didn't want to assume for someone who was trying to pass...

The machines sexing the scanning process is interesting to me academically, so I'm going to look further into it as it fits into the literature on reification of sex/gender.
Going trough TSA is always a lesson in powerlessness and vulnerability at the hands of the State, kind of like getting getting pulled over by a cop for no good reason. When things go wrong, it's humiliating in a way that is difficult to shake off. If you're the masculine butch type, that kind of humiliation and vulnerability has unique ways of fucking with your identity.

One thing that struck me - as trans becomes increasingly mainstream, butch lesbians will get the "Are you male or female" question as a matter of course, even from those who recognize them as born female.
Hey, Dan, congrats on being named Humanist of the Year!
I had a collegue I went on a trip with that is on the cusp of being trans (she's not really clear on whether she wants to transition or identify as gender queer, and its none of my bidness anyway). and she bound her breasts, TSA went apeshit, she might as well have been Osama's reanimated zombie corpse.
@1 Waaaaa, I'm an entitled ass who takes any acknowledgement that people not like me exist and face challenges I don't have to deal with as an affront to my privilege Waaaaaaa [sob]
@5: The machines sexing the scanning process is interesting to me academically

There's an obvious practical reason for this - is that a plastic explosive in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?
Ok, re-read the article, and I am a bit confused as to why she is offended and humiliated by being mistaken for a man.

She writes:
I am a woman physically, and I feel like a woman -- but I don't always look like a woman

So, she's proudly defying gender stereotypes by being a butch lesbian. I'm very glad she's doing that, it needs to be done and I've done it myself.

But... then wouldn't the confusion be flattering? I can see correcting politely to make a point, but "Sir" isn't an insult, and seeing someone who doesn't conform to gender identifies and making the wrong judgement doesn't make a person "dumb".

Also, why keep pushing in situations when she finds it humiliating? Wouldn't it be simpler to just announce when stepping up to the scanner "by the way, I'm a woman"?
@7: Holy shit. There's just no holding this guy back.
Oh, that is nothing. I have had male security guard start to do a pat-down on me and grab my breasts and then get super embarrassed and call for a female one. But this might explain why I had to go through the machine twice the last time.

I cause gender confusion everywhere I go and I generally think it is hilarious. I have bitched out a few people in bathrooms, but mostly I just let people think whatever they want. Why does it really matter?

If gender is socially constructed, we can't assume people are mind-readers about what gender we identify as. Yeah, it is a problem the male/man is the default assumption. But we have to be ok with questions if we are going to break the binary down.
@10 - I grok that part, but it's kind of sad that meaty/fatty body parts can't be distinguished from plastic explosives. And what button would get pushed for someone with bewbs and a cock? What is the cutoff line for man-bewbs, for example?

Also, what is to stop someone from passing and stashing explosives in the expected places now? Or even someone who is not well-endowed adding an "extender" or "padding" and getting through the scan? It's an ineffective and flawed way to do the scans.

On the academic side: The machine doesn't see sex; we are programming sex in based on expectations of certain idealized bodily forms that do not reflect the real variations that exist between individuals. This ties in to Foucauldian norming and other literatures.
On the other hand, a trans man with the exact same body would be offended if the TSA person had called him Ma'am instead of Sir. It's a gray area.
@14: I think you can add all of this to the growing list of reasons why the screening process is fucking ridiculous.

I'd happily take the marginal risk of being killed by terrorists if it meant returning airports to the way they were in the 90's.
On another note: I fly a lot and have found that if I make an effort to initiate a friendly exchange with TSA agents, they are pretty easy to deal with. It's the whole Cesar Milan "calm, assertive energy" thing - if you greet them and thank them where appropriate, then you've just set up the tone for the encounter to be positive.

I always ask for pat downs because I don't like the scanners and want to check out their training. I mention that I want to experience the patdowns myself to reassure my friends and family that TSA isn't bad. They're always nice then. I'm also not ticklish and had to pee in a cup with someone watching while in the Navy, so I have little shame.

Yes, the civil rights violations suck, and we need to address that through Congress and other means. But in this cruddy job market, I can't fault someone for working TSA to make ends meet, even though the job sucks.
@3 I would bet dollars to donuts that 99.99% of TSA employees don't know what the fuck a pronoun is.
@16 It's not just about you and me anymore. Osama bin Laden taught us that we have some very valuable and vulnerable assets (and people) on the ground, as well, and that airliners can be used as destructive missiles.
I feel for her and all, but, she admits that she knows she looks like a man in some ways, so while she may hate the repercussions of that while going through TSA checkpoints, I don't see why she is angry at the personnel. They didn't create the scanning devices and I'm assuming she would not prefer th giving everyone a crotch grab to see what equipment they have.
I'm sure it's difficult not to take it personally when you don't fit into typical roles but the TSA workers didn't go out of their way to humiliate Ms. Higgins, they were trying to do their thankless job of abiding by current rules and regulations for keeping travelers safe.

The software isn't trying to force her into a gender-identity, it's trying to determine if she's hiding explosives, weapons, or contraband of some sort.

While the technology will improve over time, currently it isn't smart enough to determine if someone has boobs or bombs without the operator giving it a body-type hint.

I support her right to present as masculine as she wants but find the expectation that people or machines will "just know" she's got female parts kind of petty.

She could choose to wear clothes that makes her body type more clear on travel days or could announce to the operator "I'm a woman" when stepping into the scanner. Both seem preferable to having an emotional meltdown.

Instead of a tearful rant, I'd rather she embrace her butch and tackle this as the engineering problem it is.

If she was tasked with designing a solution, knowing the limitations of the scanner/software, what would it look like? What could change that would still do the job of separating human physical appendages like breasts and penis from questionable materials quickly and accurately?

Write to the TSA with a proposal for improvement. Save the emotional outbursts for those bathroom-incidents.
Sorry, don't get it. The TSA woman was genuinely confused and just doing her job. Appeared to polite and respectful. And weirdly, Tristan is more OK with being called a dyke by some tool across the street, almost relishes it. What am I missing here?
I don't understand why the machine cares if a person has breasts or not. I guess I don't understand how the scanner works - I thought it was looking for things that aren't flesh and our bodies were incidental to the process. How would a woman with a double mastectomy fare?
It's not just about you and me anymore. Osama bin Laden taught us that we have some very valuable and vulnerable assets (and people) on the ground, as well, and that airliners can be used as destructive missiles.

It worked that one time, only because the MO of every other hijacking was to fly the plane to Cuba or something. Even a well-armed hijacker would be immediately rushed.
I'm sure fat guys with bitch tits have the same problem.

Or a non-op transwoman. I think the TSA employee handled things relatively well in this instance given that most are uneducated, underpaid boobs, but the fact is that machine is useless if it freaks the fuck out when scanning a man with breasts, a woman with none, or some variant thereof. More evidence that those scanners were never anything more than a corporate welfare cash grab.
I was kind of with her until she was mad that the operator pressed the wrong button, but also mad they then asked her what her gender was. Either they guess, or ask. Can not be mad at a person for guessing wrong. Not like they intended to shame her.

I just do not see how one can proudly dress in a masculine manner (which she states for herself) and then get upset when people mistake her for a man.
@19 - When was the last time anyone used the phrase "...then the terrorists have won."? Because that has kind of happened here. If they are, indeed terrorists, they have succeeded in making us afraid of our own airplanes. They have made us so afraid, in fact, that they have tricked us into performing pointless acts of self-assurance every time we want to fly. We could save ourselves a lot of time if we instead decided to open and close a door three times and make sure the official TSA oven is off before getting on the plane.

Because if you don't, everyone you know will die!

Remind me not to give a shit next time you come around asking everyone to hear you out on your pet issue.
As a few others have commented, how about being proactive? If the TSA agent pushes the wrong button and you are asked to be scanned again, simply tell them politely that they'll need to press the pink button.
@Brooklyn Reader:
Security is not free - we have paid tremendously for it (or the illusion of it) in time, money, and civil liberties.

Some are willing to pay a higher price for security than others. I'm just saying that we're paying more than I personally would choose to pay. I realize I am probably less averse to risk than the average bear. Quality of life is just as important to me as duration.

@23: How would a woman with a double mastectomy fare?

Fine. The machine is looking for masses that it doesn't expect, so, for example, it would false alarm on a "man" with breasts, a "woman" with a dick, or anyone with a third buttock.
@26... love your use of "boobs" to mean ignorant or stupid. What a nice Freudian you put in the game.
@23, the technology isn't perfect. Remember that if you have breasts, most likely you are also wearing a bra which can have all sorts of material which can confuse the scanner.

Considering we've had underwear bombers and shoe bombers it wouldn't be out of the question to have someone attempt to be the bra-bomber.

That of course is only funny up until that person is successful.

Ironically, the limitations of body-scanning are more privacy-issue limitations and not technical limitations.

The machines are capable of doing high-resolution imaging, which would make it entirely clear if someone had breasts, had a shaved bush, wore their dick to the right/left, or if it was circumcised.

The software was just dumbed-down to only show the human-like blobs you now see on the screen.

We tell ourselves the whole reason its vital for this perverse machine to know if you're male or female is so they can detect if you have explosives hidden in fake boobs or a fake penis bulge.

Except that a fake pot belly (a much simpler and more practical disguise) makes all of those supposedly vital gender norms moot.

We're left with a system that harasses everyone and doesn't deliver meaningful security. And here look at all the privileged white males lining up to defend that. It's a reflex to speak up, without even thinking, for the established order that put you on top.
@27 - Because dressing "in a masculine manner" and being a man are not the same things.
I'm annoyed that she seems to think being asked which gender she identifies as is somehow insulting. The vast majority of people tend to present as what they identify as, which tends to go along with which set of primary and secondary sex characteristics they have. Most female-presenting people identify as female and have breasts and a vulva, and most male-presenting people identify as male and have a penis. So when someone doesn't quite fit--like butch lesbians or trans people (like me), it's only POLITE to ask (if done in a polite way)--butch lesbians and trans men/transmasculine people can look a whole lot alike sometimes.

Now, if this were about reducing people to their genitals or asking invasive questions, then I could agree that there is a problem. I do think the scans are invasive of privacy and cause undue problems for trans people, but that's not the issue here. Educating people about gender identity vs. gender presentation vs. sex would probably help here.
@35: If you buy into the trans movement, being a man is nothing more than a state of mind.

In the future, people will assess your gender in one of three ways - guessing, asking, or reading the "Hello, I'm a man/woman" badge that you're wearing.
@34: As a white guy, I'm offended by this.

Historically speaking, my people weren't shuttled to power by some "established order". We got there ourselves.

The use of "boob" to call someone an idiot predates the use of "boob" to describe a breast by almost 30 years.

And take a look at these beauties.

Because you're the master race? Nice.
@35: I never said it was. But if I put on a policman's uniform, I am not going ot be pissed off is someone tries to report a crime to me. No one tried to tell her she was a man, and no one tried to tell her how to dress.

Keep in mind that people can not see under her clothes, nor can they read her mind. When all you have is a cover, there is nothing else to judge the book by.

On the one hand, "Would you mind if I ask you if you are a man or a woman?" doesn't seem like an awful question to be asked. On the other hand, what bearing does it have on the security of a flight?
I'm calling bullshit on this one. If you state in you own words that often you don't look like the gender you are then someone who can't tell asks you what gender you are (because as you stated, you don't always look like a woman), you don't get to get to whine about it. The LGBT community has many legitimate issues of bigotry and discrimination but this isn't one of them.
I identify as a cat! Call me "Pussy"!
@40: Because you're the master race

You're entitled to your opinion, but damn, that's kind of fucked up.

I see it as the result of technological superiority, which is more of a cultural thing. It's why Jerry Yang founded Yahoo! in Silicon Valley rather than China.

That's actually 38. They should never renumber like this.
I always get patted down. You request an alternative screening, they read you a script, and ask if that's okay. That is a good time to say "no" or "I prefer a female officer" or "I prefer to be screened in private." That might be a good option for this author in the future. It is easier to have a conversation with someone that way, like the woman in Portland who went to the same hotel on her honeymoon as I did. It doesn't have to be antagonistic. (disclaimer, I'm cis-gendered and fully aware of how that makes this easier for me. I think my point on being friendly and having a conversation stands).
@34 Not to burst your oppression-bubble but being a white, male-presenting male doesn't offer that many perks when going through security.

I've been rescanned and patted down because I had flop sweat from walking to the terminal in Texas summer while wearing a suit-coat. Somehow I made it through that ordeal without crying. I'm still angry that the TSA victimized me for my choice to be chubby-identified.

Where was the Hamburger-shaped button that would represent my body type?

When I was younger I'd often get pulled out of line to have my bags swabbed for drugs or explosives residue. I tried showing my caucasian-credentials but for some reason I didn't get my privilege pass recognized ... and this was pre 9/11!

At least I still get the complementary champagne and hand-job in the white-men's lounge when I travel.

"It's a reflex to speak up, without even thinking"

Looks like someone forgot to unplug the irony...

If you thought it was cultural then what does it have to do with being white? White is a racial trait, and you were offend as a while person. I bet Jerry Yang wasn't offended. Although it it is pretty racist to blindly credit Yang's success to the extent that he acts white rather than Chinese.

Not that your cultural chauvinism in any less gross.

Malaria isn't endemic to tropical areas because Europeans are superior, racially or culturally. Smallpox didn't decimate Native Americans because Europeans are better, culturally or racially. Europeans were lucky and they were ruthless.

In short, I'm grateful for the anonymity of the Internet that lets racist, white supremacist cultural imperialist assholes show their true colors, to remind us that discrimination is alive and well, no matter how much libertarians and Republicans try to deny it.

(Yes, I know you well, and I know what you're going to say now. You're going to double down and announce how proud you are of yourself and your asshole opinions. We all know.)

Every privileged white male carries around his one dramatic tale of the one time he was treated unfairly (he thinks). Sing it brother! You're so down with the underclass. You and Quentin Tarantino should make a movie.
What concerns me is that she doesn't say what she wants the TSA to do or what she thinks the staff should have done. Okay, it would be great if the security agents could tell her gender by looking, but they couldn't. The TSA agent came out and said, "Are you a man or a woman"; sorry, she used the weebly "Do you mind if I ask if you're a man and a woman?"

Does she want the TSA agents to ask "Would you tell me how to pronounce your first name?" (which wouldn't work on her because her name is Tristan)? Does she want the TSA to print genders on boarding passes? Usually, when someone posts a real rant, they have a long list of things that the stupid idiot who ticked them off should have done.
41 - the gender binary is not the same as an outfit you can take on and off. It's more socially constructed gender roles that keep "men" and "women" in their places. And, allows others to judge them superficially for falling out of line, as you so elegantly demonstrate.
Of course, what the TSA should actually do is knock it off with the useless security theater. No one should be going through nudity scanners or getting pawed at by strangers.
I know this isn't the first thing something like this has happened to her. And I am sure every time something like this happens, a lifetime worth of baggage comes along with it and everything she's felt with every past experience comes bubbling up.

I'm really struggling to be compassionate here since I have no clue what it must be like to have to periodically explain your gender to a complete stranger, but jesus fucking christ lady it's the TSA. There is a roughly 0% chance TSA admin gives a shit about your hurt feelings, let alone that someone is going to draw up a protocol to deal with the fraction of a percent of people whose gender is not outwardly apparent, so maybe try the path of least resistance here and figure out a way to look less butch for the 30 minutes or so you spend in the security line at the airport. If you're expecting the world to bend to meet your relatively novel needs you're going to be waiting a while.
Nobody was rude to her, nobody was even unkind. They acted out of ignorance, not malice. It's important to distinguish between offense intended and offense taken. While she took offense at what they did, nobody deliberately tried to offend her.
My own partner is a very butch woman. She is not infrequently mistaken for a man. She is invariably kind and goodnatured every time it happens. For us, her being mistaken for a man means that she is exactly the kind of woman I like, and exactly the kind of woman she is. It's a good thing, not a cause for distress.
@49: If you thought it was cultural then what does it have to do with being white?

For most of human history - before planes, trains, and automobiles began geographically dispersing our genetic material - culture and race were tightly enmeshed.

Look, your generalization about white men having some inherent interest in our nation being ass-raped by TSA agents somehow managed to be both trite and absurd.

Now I'm going to watch Real Madrid extend their 1-0 lead over Barcelona on pirated internet TV.
@50 "You and Quentin Tarantino should make a movie" is now my default put-down
@50 You missed the point, which was that I was treated uniformly by the system, as was the letter-writer and most people who go through security.

I don't mind being asked to "check my privilege" even from an obvious troll. Like most Americans I've got plenty, but you are hardly a victim yourself if you're here.

If there's an oppressed underclass they certainly aren't those of us who can afford to fly and have the technology and free time to crab at each on the internet for grins.

I feel bad for the woman and am grateful for the insight into her thoughts but it she's setting herself up for failure by bringing so much baggage to the security line (and I'm not talking luggage).
I'm not sure I understand Ms. Higgins's issue. If you're going to challenge gender assumptions (which is a good thing), then you have to expect that some people will be confused by your gender.

When I was much younger and prettier, I occasionally wore dresses or skirts just because. Since I also had long hair (and as it turns out, beautiful eyelashes), people would sometimes mistake me for a woman. This never bothered me: the whole point of wearing dresses/skirts was to challenge their "female only" designation. If it were so very very important to me that everyone immediately know I was a dude, I would have cut my hair, grown a beard, and stuck with jeans.
Another 'martyr' for the Stranger circus. I suppose I'll need to go through bull-dyke recognition training at work now.

Is there a month still free to dedicate to bull-dyke history?
@16, especially since any terrorist with half a brain isn't going to go through TSA screening at all. They'll either get a job as a cleaner, and get in unscreened whenever they want, right onto the planes, or drive around back to the general aviation gate, which is virtually unprotected, and get anywhere on the tarmac.
The blogger completely loses me about halfway through her rant. After acknowledging that she doesn't "look like a woman," she is infuriated that a TSA worker had the nerve to ask her whether she was a man or a woman.

All things considered, it seems to me that the TSA folks were as nice as they could possibly be in this circumstance.
I often encounter people whose gender I can't tell. I wish it WAS ok to just ask if you're confused (and I REALLY wish we had gender-neutral pronouns in this language!)

I was mistaken for a man once. I thought it was hilarious.

drunk guy 1: "Dude, hey, dude!"
drunk guy 2: "Dude, that's a chick!"

Me: walks away, laughing.

I guess it probably doesn't seem very funny after several times of it, but it sounds to me like the blog poster is expecting people to be psychic. And since she KNOWS that people are confused, and is afraid of tying up the scanner, maybe she should actually TELL them before she goes in that she's female? Make everything go more smoothly.
All the arguments about gender identity aside, I'm still disturbed that the stupid scanner can't tell the difference between boobs and bombs if the TSA person doesn't press the right button. I don't give a fuck if it's because it's "new" technology. Seems to me that's a pretty important distinction, and it doesn't seem like it would have been that hard for them to be designed to make the distinction in the first place.
@64. They were but people objected to the detailed photos because they left very little to the imagination.

Google "TSA body scan images" and you'll see just how detailed they can be.

As usual the available technology outpaces our ability as a society to figure out how to best use it without losing our dignity and humanity.
The airport security checkpoints are a demonstration of what treatment and behavior the people will accept from their government. The price tag says we're buying safety, and all it costs are our individual freedoms. Is there anyone reading this who doesn't believe it's all crowd control?
@52: We are not talking about anyone oppressing her or forcing her into the gender binary. We are talking about an employee whose job requires her to determine gender. She herself admits she often looks like a man. No one tried to force her into any boxes, unless you are going to accuse the machine itself of sexism. Which would not surprise me.

This may surprise you, put people can not deduce all of your complicated gender issues by viewing you from a distance. No one is even judging her for how she dresses and acts, the damn agent just needed to know which button to press.

I am judging her for being childish however, which is quite apart from her gender preferences.

I know you are trying really hard to be offended, but there is nothing here to sink your teeth into. There are lots of real things to be offended about and feel superior and enlightened about. Try something more meaty than one individual being mistaken for the opposite sex.
Please tell me more about how I feel and the "real things to be offended about."

it's stupid that there's a machine that requires gender identification (ostensibly to prevent all the terrorism) and puts people in that situation. It's not the agent's fault for doing her job, but it's an unnecessary situation to begin with.

@68: It's not stupid; it's efficient. The machine is looking for variances from "typical" body shapes-- those variances are more thoroughly investigated as potential contraband. If the machine were unisex, it would need to fully scan boobs and junk, and/or flag that area for careful review by the human user (which raises its own issues). With the gender selection, the machine can safely ignore cylinder-shaped items in males' crotch areas, and conical-shaped items in females' chest areas.

The gender identification doesn't prevent terrorism; it makes the "prevention" (such as it is) more streamlined.

As for the perils of "that situation"-- I have difficulty mustering sympathy for those who choose to swim against the current (which is good) yet complain about the inconvenience. Well, duh. Of course it's easier to conform: that's why most people do so.
Here's what I read: "I look like a guy...and people confuse me...for a guy! I can't believe how ignorant everyone else is for not knowing every detail of my sexual identity!"

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for her being who she is and looking the way she wants to look, but she can't expect the world to ignore their first impressions when she only warrants a quick glance in most day-to-day interactions. That same TSA agent probably got it right thousands of times that day...and only screwed up when a girl who looks like a guy appeared. The writer should understand that she's a bit of a wildcard...a monkeywrench in the conveyor belt of airport security.

It sucks that she feels set upon...but I know every time I leave my house in a NY Giants shirt, people are going to assume I'm a NY Giants fan. In that case, they'd be right.
I dress pretty 'masculine'. Tall, big shoulders, swagger, short hair, etc. I am sometimes called 'sir', but most people who do notice their mistake quickly. You know why? Because I don't have an Adam's apple, I do have breasts, my voice is higher than most men's, and my facial structure is feminine. These things are true for the writer here, as well. A second look at her face would put the issue to rest.

And yes, being confronted in the restroom can be hurtful. I once, at the age of 12, had a security guard come in to the ladies' to talk to me. I'm not the most sensitive person on record, but that memory is still painful and humiliating.
I get 'Sir"ed all the time. really, I'm not willing to get that pissy about it.

People who dont fit the gender stereotype of male or female get challenged all the time. Having a lighthearted approach to it seems to make it easier to escape those situations with my self esteem and body image.

Please wait...

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