The ‘Wrong’ Body

I am transgender, and I was not born in the ‘wrong’ body. My body is only ‘wrong’ in a binary-focused, cisnormative narrative that says being trans is only ok if you strive to assimilate to mainstream cultural ideas of gender and anatomy as swiftly and quietly as possible. The idea that I might have been born in the ‘wrong’ body sounds an awful lot like the idea that being trans is shameful and unfortunate, something to be fixed. Yes, I need to make some changes to my body for my own well being, but my trans-ness is not something that needs to be fixed. I am grateful for my life experiences. I strive to celebrate being trans, even if it’s still a struggle for me right now, having internalized a lot of the negative messages that tell me my body and heart are shameful, and those messages are everywhere.

Let’s take, for example, going through the TSA body scanners at the airport. Last week I got on an airplane to visit my family for the holidays. My travel anxieties this time extended beyond a relatively recently developed fear of falling out of the sky to getting through the TSA security checkpoint without having to prove something about my gender or my body.

In my case, my ID lists a name and gender consistent with how I’m perceived. My body, however, is not entirely consistent with perceived (cisnormative) expectations. Stepping into a TSA body scanner, where a tech somewhere nearby pushes a button for ‘male’ or ‘female’ to tell the scanner what to expect, gave me a lot of anxiety. Chest binding does not perfectly mimic what might be expected for a common, cis male chest. I expected my ‘wrong’ body to trigger a pat down. I posted the following on social media after this first encounter:

“Step over here please.” As expected, a pat down after the scanner. The agent patted my chest area. Upon feeling the edges of my chest binding, with its unexpected bumps and other shapes, he asks “Do you have anything in your pockets there?” I reply in a firm, tired voice, “No, that’s my body.” He pats me down again, confused. He asks me to turn around and checks my backside, feeling all around my binding. “You are male, right?”

“Yes.”

Another agent gives me a sympathetic smile. I have no idea what she is thinking. I am avoiding declaring my transgender status unless it is really necessary. My anatomy is none of anyone else’s business, and it’s certainly not a threat to national security. I start to mutter something about my body being uncommon, but then we’re done. I get to pass.

In the immediate aftermath, I felt all the anxiety I didn’t have space for in the moment. What if this agent had decided I was being a problem? What if this agent decided I was lying? He had the power to do this. He had the power to decide that I was suspicious and needed to be questioned. I was prepared to direct him to the location of a note from my doctor in my bag – a note that says nothing of my anatomy, but that backs up my status as trans.

All this for body parts that cause me dysphoria, that a complicated healthcare system with lots of oppressive, transphobic hoops has prevented me from taking care of. A literal burden I get to carry around on my chest.

Now imagine if I could have been read as black or Arab or Muslim. Do you think I would have made it through so easily?

I believe it is important to share my experiences as a trans person dealing with situations like these. I also believe that I cannot with integrity share my own experience here without acknowledging how I also experience privilege in these settings. Since I am perceived as a white man, with clothing and backpack that probably signal financial stability (regardless of what my actual situation may or may not be), I am more likely to automatically be given the benefit of the doubt in situations like I describe above. This is what I was getting at in my final question: Now imagine if I could have been read as black or Arab or Muslim. Do you think I would have made it through so easily? It seems unlikely to me in today’s climate.

Speaking of pat downs, let’s talk for a moment about racial profiling and stop and frisk. I chose to go through TSA security to fly someplace knowing that I might face a pat down. This was an entirely optional experience for me in the grand scheme of things. Every day, black people in the US are stopped and given a much more thorough and violating pat down simply for walking from one place to another in the normal course of their day. Even off-duty black police officers experience racial profiling by on-duty officers. This is what happens to black people because their bodies are also considered ‘wrong’ – not ‘wrong’ for being trans, but ‘wrong’ for being black. Legally, anyone can refuse a search by a police officer if the officer hasn’t produced some kind of warrant or presented a clear cause, but a) not everyone knows this, and b) resisting a police officer, even completely legally, while black can get you murdered on the spot.

Now take these two things together: black and trans. Imagine the anxiety I described above about a TSA agent patting down my trans body, except you get to expect that walking down the street every day, minding your own business.

Let’s go a little further, then: black, trans, and female. Trans women of color are murdered with alarming frequency, and the outcry – when there even is one – is muted. Being female amplifies the transphobia; being trans amplifies the misogyny (transmisogyny); being female and trans amplifies the racism.

I firmly believe that if our liberation movements – trans, feminist, anti-racist, etc. – were to come together, to decompartmentalize, we would not only help those who live in the intersections (who are also at the greatest risk), but we would also be a much larger, stronger force. Divided we are weakened, and expend energy fighting with each other for scraps at the table. Together we can demand a whole new table.

Speaking of the policing of bodies, I haven’t even touched on fat-shaming, disability advocacy, pregnant bodies, etc. There are so many ways our society defines our worth based on our bodies, and tells us that only certain bodies are worthy or can be independent. I stand for the rights of all bodies to exist as they are. Trans – pre, post, non-, and in transition bodies of all slices, black, indigenous, fat, thin, pregnant, cis, disabled, tall, short, strong, lumpy, tired, athletic, and on and on. Let’s all stand together.

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3 Responses to The ‘Wrong’ Body

  1. pennapril says:

    Excellent blog post. I like how you told your story and considered the politics and experiences of others.

  2. Jamie Ray says:

    I’ve been stopped in the US every time I go through security since they put in the body scanners – and I’ve been patted down and had my palm swabbed each time. The TSA needs better training, because the last time the two agents had a rather loud discussion about me (in front of my partner – they didn’t realize we were together and she heard it all) about whether I was male or female, who should pat me down, and whether I should go through the scanner again.

    I’ve had absolutely no problem outside of the US (a very nice Italian agent who got the picture flirted with me in Rome) – so I blame the TSA.

  3. Yes! Thanks so much for posting this and for making intersectionality so clear. 🙂

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