I’ve never been afraid of flying. Sure, I hate how the changes in elevation make me adjust the pressure in my ears again and again, but I find the tilt and rumble of takeoff and landing exhilarating, like a slow-motion roller coaster. I grew up in Southern California. I’m good with roller coasters. Did you know they’re actually much safer than cars?
I’m at the Sea-Tac airport with my mom and my brother, going through the motions to get to the gate for the first leg of our trip to Hawaii. My mom, chronically early to the airport, had us leave the house at 5:00 a.m. for an 8:40 flight. It was excessively early for sure, but when I see the snaking security line, it makes a little more sense. It wraps back and forth several times, and there are signs on the dividers about the drug-sniffing dogs we’ll have to pass before the scanners.
Waiting in line gives me time to think. I haven’t flown in a while. This will be my first time since I started hormone replacement therapy (more than a year ago) and had top surgery (several months ago). I’ve been out as trans in most aspects of my life for several years, but up until now I’ve been read as cis at the airport. Now my body is different. Now it will give me away.
We pass the dog without incident. I hand my driver’s license and boarding pass to the TSA agent who checks them just before the scanner lines. My legal gender marker matches neither my identity nor my appearance, but they wave me through without question or comment. I prepare for the scanner in the usual ways: I slip off my shoes, untie my sweatshirt from around my waist, pull my electronics and liquids from my bag and put them in a separate basket.
When the TSA first introduced the full-body scanners in place of simpler metal detectors, I thought the dissenters were overreacting. No one wants strangers looking at their naked body, but it’s not personal. It’s like when you buy tampons or condoms: it’s awkward, but the person checking you out doesn’t care. They see this all day.
But the body scanners aren’t really the same as buying intimate commodities. Trans people’s bodies and genitals are subject to strangers’ inappropriate curiosity and suspicion all the time. Scanning technology gives a select group of those strangers the power to see through our clothes, grope us, and say it’s all in the name of security.
I’m used to the first steps of the process: wait to be waved into the scanner, place your feet on the marks, raise your arms in a diamond over your head, step out when you’re told, wait for clearance. I’m not used to the next steps.
The agent operating the scanner says, “Oops, wrong button.”
“Oops” — like this is a casual mistake, rather than a systemic problem that’s been happening to people like me thousands of times a day, unchecked, for years.
I turn to look at the scanner image of me, although I’m not sure this is allowed. On the screen is a generic human silhouette, with a yellow square over the genitals, flagging abnormality. I remember when the TSA comforted the public with the announcement that they would be switching to less specific images on the readouts. I’m not convinced it’s better to have my genitals less specifically deemed abnormal.
I’m typically very polite and accommodating to people whose jobs involve interacting with the public, all “thank you” and “no problem” and “absolutely,” but I give the agent a stony silence as I enter the scanner again, this time to be compared to another ill-fitting template. Feet on the marks, arms above my head, staring blankly through the machine as its generic, impersonal, invasive gaze bores through me again.
When I was in junior high, a classmate told me about a raunchy party game. It’s called The Nervous Game. One person slowly, incrementally moves their hand up the inside of the other person’s thigh, asking at each step, “Are you nervous?” The game ends when the answer is yes.
My pat-down goes like that, but with no excitement, intimacy, or opportunity to opt out. It’s over quickly. As I retrieve my belongings from the other scanner, I tell my mom, “I got the whole trans pat-down.” It feels a little invasive to bring up, even though it just happened, right here. It feels a little like putting my naked body on display again.
She holds up her bottle of frozen iced tea, half liquefied by the energy of the scanner.
“They made me dump out the part that had melted!” she laments, with more outrage than I had mustered for being nonconsensually felt up. “It was just a little bit! They’d never made me do that before.”
I slide my shoes back on, wondering what gender the agents ultimately decided was “correct” and whether they expected me to have more dick or less.
When we get to the gate, it’s another two hours until our flight. I get a bagel and a latte, which I drink reluctantly, knowing it’ll make me have to pee. Airplane bathrooms, for all their cramped strangeness, are gender-neutral and no one thinks anything of it. Airport bathrooms are different.
Sea-Tac, thankfully, does have a single-stall bathroom in addition to the women’s and men’s rooms, but it’s awkward. It serves accessibility needs and family needs as well as trans needs, so it’s almost always occupied. Instead of many stalls with continuous turnover, the entire flow of availability hangs on how long each single occupant takes. There’s no telling how long it’ll be, and there’s not really a place to wait.
I hover off to the side of the wide airport corridor, feeling exposed and suspect. Anyone could see me waiting and point out the obvious fact that there are other bathrooms. Anyone could see me waiting and accuse me of taking space from people who really need it. These threats come up every time I have to use the one single-stall bathroom in a large institution, but I’ve never figured out how to mitigate them. Maybe I could show my hypothetical antagonists a printout of my scan results with my abnormal yellow square. Aside from the perpetual crisis, though, I make it through the bathroom without trouble.
I pass the rest of the time at the gate playing video games and texting my partner about my unease. Once we board, I send them pictures of all the weird ads in the airline magazine, particularly enjoying the one that advertises “testosterone for women, and men, too.” I send them one last text before takeoff: “Someone soon to be in the sky loves you.”
Still, as the plane rattles off the ground and roars into the sky, my dread lingers. TSA claims to keep us — a narrow, nationalistic “us” — safe, but in reality, it endangers us, especially people who are trans, disabled, and/or of color. Planes seem dangerous but are actually very safe. Safety and danger are two sides of the same coin, and often they feel as random. My plane has never fallen out of the sky before, but maybe today it will. There’s a first time for everything.
I’ve never been afraid of flying before, but today I am.
For more on trans experiences with TSA, please check out Jessica Wadleigh’s #TravelingWhileTrans. Her experience parallels mine in many ways and also speaks to the additional scrutiny and hostility trans women often face. Her anxiety and righteous anger are palpable and her commentary incisive.