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Essay: LAX Security Wasn't Ready For My Transgender Body

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The following story was originally performed live as part of KPCC's live storytelling series, Unheard LA. Each show features a curated lineup of real people sharing true stories of life here in Southern California. You can RSVP for the next show here.

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Did you know that airport scanners have a pink button for when they think you look like a girl and a blue button for when they think you look like a boy?

And if your body doesn't match the button they choose for you, then you alarm the scanner.

I never used to think of myself as transgender. I saw that as someone else's identity, someone else's story. I've always known I wasn't cisgender, but I naively believed that my gender identity was private; I thought it was only mine, and that I was in control.

That changed one Tuesday morning at LAX. I didn't match either the blue or the pink button, and suddenly my body was a security threat. They insisted on referring to my "groin anomaly." I explained: that's my penis, not an anomaly.

I identified myself as transgender, thinking it would help them recall that training I hoped they had gotten. The word transgender just seemed clearer. Besides, I didn't fancy trying to explain my nonbinary gender identity to a bunch of government officials at 7 a.m. I just wanted to be as accommodating as possible.

Unfortunately, my willingness to openly discuss my genitals didn't assuage their suspicions. So my penis underwent its first pat-down of the day, but was still regarded as an anomaly and a threat. So I was handed off to another agent, for a full body pat-down, which was... very thorough.

This new agent was sympathetic. They expressed themselves as an ally of the LGBT community, and gave me agency in how my body was handled during the pat-down. I felt respected. They did a full body pat-down, and then cleared and released me.

Then, their supervisor intervened.

The supervisor informed me that policy dictated that I be taken into a private room, and that they would use the front of their hands on my penis to confirm that it was actually a penis.

I had been understanding up to this point. I reasoned they had a job to do, and I could make it easier by being well behaved, by being compliant. But I couldn't imagine what would be required of me in that room. Tears started streaming down my face.

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All the coherent arguments I tried to make with this supervisor were met with nothing but dismissive declarations. Every response was dripping with the word "ma'am." Even though I was asking for the blue button. Ma'am. Even though I wear men's clothing. Ma'am. Even though my penis is all we can talk about. My penis which they were still referring to as a "groin anomaly."

I argued I should have the right to consent to the button that scans me, their mistake shouldn't give them the right to touch my genitals - a third time. But my arguments didn't matter. I alarmed the scanner twice, and I was not allowed to go through again. That would be against policy.

I flew several times a year out of this airport at this very security line, and never before had my groin been flagged as a potential threat or anomaly. That's when the supervisor treated me to a little lecture: The airport scanner operator chooses the pink or the blue button based on "how you present."

"Before this, I worried I wasn't trans enough. Now, I wondered if my anxiety would spike every time I traveled." -- Ash Nichols (Photo by Bill Youngblood for KPCC)

The word "present" was used against me like a weapon: I wasn't masculine enough to have earned the blue button. As if I was the cause of my own suffering? Besides, I was told, I had failed under both buttons. As if I wasn't even recognizably human?

The interaction was so bad, that at one point a fellow passenger felt prompted to intervene. They yelled at the TSA supervisor: "She...He....I'm really sorry, I don't know...but this is a human being! Why can't you just consider that and give them a little compassion?"

I felt so much love in that moment. Someone who had no idea who I was, no clue about trans issues, but they recognized pain and fear in my face and stepped up to protect me.

But that's the moment I knew I was screwed.

It only highlighted what I had been fighting: The TSA had all the power. Everything was subject to their whim. The whim of their policy. The whim of their binary. The whim of this supervisor. They could keep me from getting to my plane, from getting to my best friend's wedding.

The supervisor left to "check the policy again, ma'am, if that'll make you feel better." It felt like a way to shut me up. They took the sympathetic agent with them.

My tears had stopped. As I stood there, looking at my credit cards and shoes sitting just out of reach in the busy airport, I looked at the awkward agent who had been left to guard me. This agent who had been so alarmed by my body that they went over their supervisor's head to stop me from getting to my plane.

The sympathetic agent, the only one making any attempt at treating me like a human, didn't wield the power here.

Then there was me, who woke up that morning not expecting that one government official could so violate my sense of self in less than 15 minutes, who didn't know that months later I would feel anxious just walking down the street, wondering whether my penis was normal enough today.

Before this, I worried I wasn't trans enough. Now, I wondered if my anxiety would spike every time I traveled.

I thought about how many people's bodies are considered anomalies and the suspicion we are subject to every day -- just for going to the bathroom or for asking to be visible with pronouns that refer to who we actually are.

I thought about how making myself as non-threatening as possible is sometimes the only way to stay safe. Or sane.

This wasn't the first time I was made to feel invisible. It was just the first time I admitted it.

Even through my haze, I reverted to the coping mechanism I knew best. I tried to teach. I gathered up any patience I could find and took it upon myself to try and help the awkward agent understand. Maybe if I could get through, it would be better for the next person? It was the only agency I had left.

The supervisor returned shepherding the sympathetic agent, who looked like an elementary school student forced to give a rehearsed apology they didn't believe in. The sympathetic agent explained they were newly promoted and that they hadn't yet learned all of the policy details. They were very sorry for the inconvenience that I'd had, but now they had to take me to a private area and do a third pat-down, this time with the front of their hands. They apologized again.

The authoritarian supervisor looked smug. The sympathetic agent was likely yelled at, maybe their promotion threatened. But the 30 seconds I spent in the private area with the sympathetic agent were infinitely easier than the 15 minutes I spent defending my existence to the supervisor.

The pat-down was explained in detail to me, but then the sympathetic agent barely touched me before declaring that I was clear and free to go -- immediately.

I could see the awkward agent who had been so alarmed by my body watching in the corner, and I knew that the sympathetic agent would get in trouble, again, for standing up for me. But I packed my things quickly and left.

I used to think my penis was private, that it was only my business, but everyone is assuming what is between my legs before I even open my mouth. That assumption determines everything: the pronouns used, how I will be treated, and whether I will be safe.

I am transgender. I was afraid to say that before that morning with the TSA. I thought flying under the radar would make make me safer, but it only made me invisible. And I'm done being invisible.

Ash Nichols has been a theater and performance artist over the past decade throughout California. Nichols has been a producer and manager specializing in new works, community-engaged projects, installations, nontraditional, and other weird art things that defy categorization.


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