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For Gender Nonconforming Travelers, Airports Are Particularly Stressful to Navigate

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 9/16/2020 Lindsey Danis
a large room © Getty

Whenever I fly, TSA officers think I’m hiding something. I’m consistently pulled over after walking through the body scanners, even though I’ve emptied my pockets and removed the ever-expanding list of garments (belt, shoes, jacket, hat). “What’s under your shirt?” they ask.

“Nothing.”

“What’s under your shirt?” Again, with an edge in their voice, as if I’m obtuse. They pull at the fabric of my shirt or pat my shoulder. “Here—what is that?

That is my boobs.

That is the dawning realization that I’m female, not male like they perceived. I’m gender nonconforming, and it places me under suspicion at airports.

The TSA’s imaging technology scans passengers based on the gender binary. Whenever a traveler approaches the imaging portal, the agent on duty makes a snap decision on that person’s gender, and then presses a button—pink or blue. When the agent guesses right, the scan is clear, unless there’s another issue. When travelers are misgendered, the scanner flags an alarm in certain areas. In my case, that’s the chest, since men aren’t supposed to have boobs.

“Transgender persons will be screened as he or she presents at the security checkpoint,” the TSA’s website declares. While TSA agents are trained on transgender passengers, the 30-minute online training is criticized as inefficient and the agency’s 17 percent attrition rate may mean the person on duty has no background in how to read bodies like mine.

When I first learned about the binary gender body scanners, I was relieved. I used to blame myself for attracting extra attention—my natural expression is aloof, which could read as suspicious—but it turned out that my unapproachable demeanor wasn’t to blame.

The relief was short-lived and replaced by worry: Would I be read as female today, or would I have to get patted down because my short hair and sweatshirt-and-jeans travel uniform skewed masculine? Should I have worn a more colorful shirt? Should I smile? How much of a different, gender-affirming person do I have to pretend to be to make it to my gate stress-free?

a group of people that are standing in the snow © Getty

While I’m largely invisible in my day-to-day life and by the time I get to my final destination, I’m closely watched in airports. Post-9/11 airport security measures lengthened wait times at screening checkpoints, leaving travelers with extra time to stare at fellow passengers. Coached by the “see something, say something” mentality, fliers look deeply at those nearby. TSA agents are trained to identify threats, sometimes using behavioral cues that anxious travelers like me might display—excessive fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, watching the clock. Whatever doesn’t fit the norm becomes suspect.

Once in JFK, a woman gasped when she caught sight of me in the bathroom line, then giggled to her friend. She’d been frightened until she realized I was gender nonconforming, and then I became someone to pity or mock. Reflexively, I’ve started chatting with my wife while in restroom lines in airports and highway rest stops, relying on my uptalk and vocal fry to set women at ease.

Gender-neutral bathrooms can be easier, but not always. In the Seattle airport, dude rancher types queued up behind me while I waited for the terminal’s lone gender-neutral bathroom. Jet-lagged and coffee-deprived, it took a few minutes to realize the guys thought I was waiting to use the men’s room.

I later laughed it off: My new haircut made me look more masculine. Plus, gender is an illusion, and if I’m opening a rancher’s mind, then I’m doing something right.

In airports, each time I hand my identification over, the person at the other end will inspect my documentation and appearance and decide whether I’m a threat. I look more feminine in my passport photo, which is nearly a decade old, with a textured pixie cut and rounded face, than I do in real life, where I’m leaner and more androgynous. Next year, I’ll have a passport photo that more accurately represents my gender presentation, though it’ll classify me as female. While countries including Argentina, Germany, India, and Nepal allow so-called gender x passports for unspecified genders, and these documents are endorsed by the International Air Transport Association, the U.S. doesn’t currently allow a third option. In times when gender identity and expression can change quickly, photo identification with a 10-year validity can sometimes feel like a liability when the likeness depicted is hardly recognizable.

I’m relatively privileged: It’s not triggering to see binary gender markers on my travel documents or to be misgendered, as it often is for transgender or nonbinary travelers. At worst, I feel anxious, vaguely unsafe, and dehumanized. Other gender nonconforming and trans travelers have been been pulled into private rooms, asked to expose their genitals, or detained so long they’ve missed flights.

The imaging companies that provide airport body scanners are working on new machines that don’t rely on the gender binary to screen travelers. According to Pacific Standard, TSA chose not to adopt new scanners in 2015. No timeline has been shared for when newer scanners will arrive at airports. Decoupling gender perception from threat level will make airports safer spaces for people who don’t fit neatly into those pink or blue boxes. But until that day, occasional misgendering and extra attention is the price travelers like me pay to fly.

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