In the bathroom, I prepare for my next trip through TSA security. I have not yet left for the airport, where I will again stop in the bathroom one last time before getting in the security line.
I change one of my binder layers. I tug at it in different places to try to eliminate bulges and wrinkles, as if that’s ever something I can truly eliminate (it’s not). I put my undershirt on and give myself a torso pat down, trying to figure out what an agent might feel and deem suspicious. I take my undershirt off again to tug at different places. Rinse and repeat.
I feel frustrated. Already, I want my chest to be different than it is. Already, I am trying to make it as unnoticeable as possible on a daily basis. My own dysphoria and discomfort feels amplified this time. I am forced to spend time considering how much my ‘anomalous’ chest screams SOMETHING STRANGE HERE, BETTER CHECK IT OUT MORE CLOSELY, and to try to find yet another way to make something that takes up space not take up any space. I need a physics miracle. I need fewer surgery hoops to jump through, and less anxiety about new doctors.
At the airport, I go to the bathroom to check everything again. I start with another self-pat down through my shirt to identify ‘problem areas’. More layer removal, tugging, self-pat downs until I’m satisfied that I cannot make it any better than it is. I get in line.
I am feeling extra anxiety this time around because I’m at RDU, which is where I was pulled aside for my first private screening three weeks prior because an agent felt a wrinkle during my usual extra torso pat down.
I have flown 11 times since being perceived as male, and had only one private screening. I have on two or three occasions explained, when questioned, that I am wearing a brace for medical purposes that I cannot remove, one time resulted in a palms-swipe for explosives, and one time it led to a private screening. Every time, I have had an extra torso pat down after the body scanner.
Based on those numbers, the chances are ~10% or less that I end up in private screening this time. But it is the unpredictability that makes this extremely anxiety-inducing and exhausting. What will this next agent decide? Is a wrinkle ok or not? If not, does a palms-swipe for explosives suffice, or are they going to suggest I might have to show them my underwear? Will they be friendly, or transphobic and awful? There is no way to predict. The not knowing makes me lose my apatite, and can sometimes even make it difficult for me to focus on a conversation in the hours prior to going through it. That’s how I felt today.
I take deep breaths through my nose as I push all my things onto the conveyor belt and get in line for the body scanner. This is where I have to give up agency over my body to strangers who likely have little to no understanding of trans people like myself, and a system explicitly designed around binary, gender-conforming bodies.
I step out of the scanner. An agent in front of me looks at the screen, then at an agent to my right and gestures to their chest area, indicating my chest area. They make me go back in the scanner. I wonder if they decided I might be a woman and wanted to push a different button. I wonder why they didn’t just give me the usual pat down. After time number two, I glance back at the screen and see a figure with orange ‘alarm’ boxes around the chest and armpits. I feel the shame of trying to hide something that I feel like I’m not supposed to hide, but that also isn’t wrong nor is it anyone’s business. I get the torso pat down I was expecting.
It’s always fast, but I’m always waiting for the moment when the agent steps back to ask me a question. This agent felt and nearly squeezed my armpit bulges. I thought for sure I was going to be asked about them. Instead, I am cleared.
I feel shaken and exhausted. I made it without any questions or additional screening, but I’m wiped out from the entire day of slowly intensifying anxiety I just experienced, all for this 2 minute exchange. I feel an echo of how I felt after private screening the last time.
Later, my flight is delayed and it looks like I might miss my connection home, and there are no more flights I could rebook on until the morning. It looked like I could take my first flight and probably sleep on the floor of a different airport, or rebook for the morning and return to the airport again later, which would mean having to go through security a second time. I spend considerable time weighing whether it would be worth it to spend the night on the floor of an airport rather than have to go through security again, and lean toward sleeping on an airport floor. Ultimately, I don’t have to choose. I make my connection and get to sleep in my own bed.
All this, and I have it easy. I’m a white trans man. No one is coming near my crotch with suspicion. No one is profiling me for extra scrutiny based on their perception of my race or religion. Most of the agents’ unconscious bias will be in my favor.
I cannot make my chest as it is into a shape that will not set off the body scanner. I will keep trying to find a way, but I do not think it’s possible. Until I have surgery (which is also not something all trans men even want), my chest will always set off the body scanner alarm, and I will always have a follow up torso pat down, and I will always carry the anxiety of random extra scrutiny that will always be a total crapshoot as to how I am treated.
The more afraid we are, the more security we decide is ok. The more security, the more we are policed into narrow boxes of what is considered ‘normal’ and therefore ‘clear’ or safe, and the more our more vulnerable populations, who are more likely to be already struggling, bear the brunt of extra scrutiny on behalf of our ‘freedom’. And we are not actually safeguarding our freedom. We are all increasingly less free to be whole, to explore our own edges, to dare to stand out and be fully alive.
Every time I endure anxiety and extra scrutiny like this, I am bearing some of the cost of someone else’s idea of freedom.