Pride 2016: Whiplash

Posted: June 13, 2016 in Blog, Uncategorized
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Pride 2016: Whiplash

Last week, I left home on a sunny Thursday morning to go to the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. I got a little turned around near the airport with all of the construction and had a hard time finding the economy parking lot, which I thought was kind of funny given the number of times I’ve been to the airport. It was a nice day. I was looking forward to my trip—2 ½ days of conferencing and new ideas and meeting fun, new people, followed by 2 days visiting my sister, whom I have described in previous blog posts as “a colorful character”.

I finally figured out the entrance to the economy parking lot and ditched my car in favor of the railcar to the terminal.  American Airlines buzzed at noon. I went right to the little machine and plugged in my flight number.  The machine couldn’t find me. Rut ro, Raggy.  Just to my right, two American Airlines reps chatted at the counter and one glanced over and asked if she could help.

“The machine can’t seem to find me,” I said. “Here’s my reservation info.”

Dutifully, she began to plug the information into her computer. As she was typing, I happened to scroll down a bit on my phone screen and saw that my reservation was just fine—AND with another airline. I started to laugh and she looked up at me.

“Oh geez! My flight is actually on United! I’m in the wrong terminal.”  The more I thought about it, the harder I laughed. She joined me. Then her counter-mate joined us and we all giggled together.  They wished me a great flight and a nice day and I headed over to the correct terminal.

Lines. Identification. Shoes off. If you fly, you know the drill.

“Step in, feet on the marks, raise your hands.”

The scan machines are so much faster.

“You moved. Can you step back in and we’ll do it again? It’s blurry.”

I stepped back in, put my feet on the Arthur Murray footprints and raised my paws above my head. The machine whirred in a half-circle and they waved me out.

“Please wait here until the scan comes up.”

I waited, idly glancing sideways to see if my belongings were coming through the x-ray machine. Not that I fly a lot, but same old, same old.

An angular, hard-looking TSA agent leaned toward me. “Do you have anything in your pockets?”

I shook my head. I know the drill. Nothing in your pockets when you get scanned.  I voluntarily turned my pockets inside out for her.

She looked back at the screen. “Do you have something in your groin area?”

I didn’t think I’d heard her right.  “I’m sorry. What?”

“The scan is showing a suspicious bulge in your groin area. Do you have anything there?”

Confused, I stared at her for a moment. “No. There’s nothing there.”

“What about your right ankle?”

“What about it?”

“The scan shows something there too. Look.” She pointed at the monitor positioned behind me, over my left shoulder.  I turned around. The admirably gender neutral stick figure on the screen had a bright box drawn around both its right stick figure ankle and its y-shaped, stick figure groin area.

What the actual fuck?

“So do you have anything on your ankle?”

“My sock,” I offered dryly.

“I’m going to have to pat it down.”

“Of course,” I agreed, not putting the whole picture together yet.

She reached down, running her fingers around the cuff of my jeans.  As I’d said, there was nothing there but my sock. When she straightened up, she said, “We’re going to have to pat you down.” She started to rattle off the procedure which involved a female TSA agent searching my body, placing hands in some very private areas.

That’s when it clicked.

It flashed through my mind and was gone in a nanosecond. I wonder how many other trans and gender queer people have come through this airport in the last two days to get to this conference? Are you trying to make a point? See if I’m packing? See if I have a penis and my ID doesn’t match my body? Do you want to make sure I’m using the right bathroom?

I didn’t look any different than I have and I wasn’t wearing anything I haven’t flown in for the last 20 years. I wear one kind of jeans. They’re my favorite. I wear one kind of underroos, also my favorite.  What an odd coincidence that we, as a country, are losing our collective minds over trans people and their right to dignity, not to mention bodily privacy, and the only person getting pulled out of line at that moment  was the only visible gender queer. Maybe it happened to people who weren’t gender queer. I don’t know that for a fact. What I do know for a fact was that I was on my way to work, and all of a sudden, I was required to allow a TSA agent to touch my groin.

I took a step back from her and sweat broke out on my forehead and the scruff of my neck. I felt my head jerk side to side convulsively, accompanied by a reaction of please don’t touch me. My breathing constricted and I couldn’t get a deep breath in.

The agent took a step closer to me. “Would you like to be screened in a private area?”

Yes.

NO! Please don’t take me somewhere and touch my body against my will!

I backed up another half step. Maybe I could just leave. I could collect my belongings and just go home. I could skip the conference. Another female TSA rep appeared at the first one’s elbow. Then a male agent called out something about needing a female to do a private screening and a third one appeared. All three of them faced me, as I stood with my back against the edge of the scan machine, sweat leaking down my temples.

“You’ll need to come with us.”

Could I? Couldn’t I just leave?  It wasn’t too far from the feeling of being with the father when he was arrested for DWI when I was eight and I was told I needed to get in the squad car with him, which was the equivalent of being arrested with him. I could have run then, too, but I had been concerned that I’d be the only fugitive in my third grade class. What if I turned around and walked out now?

A vision of being tackled and cuffed invaded my thoughts.  Was that what happened? Was declining a search and leaving ever an option? What were my rights in this situation? Cold, I realized I had no idea if they’d take me down or what my legal rights were.

The private screening area looked like an overgrown cubicle with a lid on it. I was directed in first, and the three agents followed me, lining up along the inside of the only door, barring my exit.

The young African American woman addressed me.  “Is there anything you want to tell us?”

What could I say? Please don’t touch me? I have nothing in my pants except myself? I don’t know why you’re doing this?  Except I did, because the machine told them there was something there…and this was their jobs.

What came out was, “I… I… this will be hard for me. I will try to stand still.”

Her eyebrows furrowed, then she nodded. “I understand. I’ll tell you everything I’m about to do.”  She held her arms out from her sides, palms up. “Please extend your arms like this.”

I stretched my paws out, also palms up. Cold helplessness sank to the bottom of my stomach like a heavy ball as I tensed all over. I realized my heart was racing.

“I’m going to start here with a pinching motion and work my way around.” She took hold of the band of my jeans.

Okay. Okay, I can do this. Just stand still. I can do this.

She finished searching the band of my jeans. “Please move your feet further apart. I’m going to move my hand up your legs. I have to touch your groin. I’ll use the back of my hand.”

My gag reflex caught. I closed my eyes, my entire body constricted now, and tears ran from corners of my closed eyes.

“Are you okay?” the first agent asked.  “Do you need a break?”

I shook my head.

“You want us to keep going and just get it over with?”

Yes. By all means. Please continue invading my body while I stand here with my arms out until you decide it’s “over with”. I have nothing on my being that you are going to find, so exactly how long is this going to take? The sound that came out was sort of a cracked croak which the agent, now kneeling on the floor, took to be an affirmation.

Hands. Stranger’s hands in places that no one gets to touch …except for those with consent or those who did not bother to get consent.

Focus. Focus. It’s almost done.

The agent on the floor finished running her hands between my legs and got up. “She doesn’t have anything.”

NO SHIT.

To me, she said, “You’re doing great. I just have to swab your hands and we’ll be done.”

When she stepped out of the room to get the swab, the first agent offered me a ragged paper towel and asked me quietly, “Are you traveling with someone?”

I shook my head, unable to look at her, tears still blinding me. Silly me. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring emotional support to get through having some stranger’s hands in my groin at the airport so I could get to work. I glanced around the overgrown cubicle, wondering how many other gender queer people had been rubbed down in this space over the past 24 hours. And how many other sexual assault survivors were systematically reduced to trembling idiots, blinded by their own tears?

The swab was clean, mostly because I so rarely need to handle physical explosives at my job as a social worker. Dealing with emotional explosion is much more our realm. Numbly, I wondered if I had somehow missed some headlines about a run of pudgy, middle aged queers smuggling explosives in their underroos.

The agent who had searched me opened the door. “Thank you,” she said softly, a 180 turn from her approach when she thought I had groin-related contraband.

I stumbled away, one sneaker still untied. Or untied again. I didn’t know. The gate seemed an inordinate distance away; the conference might well have been on the other side of the planet.  I could still feel echoes of strange hands. Someone bumped into me—or I bumped into someone—and I crawled further inside my skin seeking the off switch to my over-extended antennae. I fought the urge to keep repeating, “I’m sorry, please stop!”, as if that had been expected me the entire time and as if that might have had any effect.

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be sorry about. Sorry for being at O’Hare? Sorry for having booked a flight that took me through THAT security gate with those particular TSA agents? Sorry for being comfortable in my gender queerness and having the nerve to show up at the airport that way? Sorry that I wasn’t actually packing and there was nothing between the agent’s hand and my groin except my clothing? Sorry that I had the gall to be looking forward to a 3 day conference of open queer-ity in a city celebrating Pride weekend? Sorry… just for being?

The fall from the high of looking forward to the conference ended with a tooth-rattling jolt in an overgrown cubicle with a lid. I’ve been a public queer for almost twenty years. I’ve been helping little queerlings celebrate who they are for almost half the time I’ve been alive. How dare I? How dare I show up at the airport wearing my favorite jeans and my favorite underroos, sporting my gender neutrality? As if this were Pride month… In 2016.

The conference was barely tolerable and I couldn’t wait to find quiet space. Focus. Breathe. Keep breathing. Find pride. I know it’s here somewhere.

My chest eventually opened up and I was able to start breathing deeply again until the news reports of Orlando and LA began. I hadn’t realized that my breathing space was merely the act of climbing the next incline, this time with a drop right off the edge as if the tracks simply ended. When the plunge began, and my antennae shot out so far I could no longer sense where they were in space or time, I had one comfort left.

I texted the Youth Outlook staff whose numbers I had with me. “Watching this story get worse and worse as the day goes one, thinking of my dream team and loving you guys from PA.”

Their responses to me and to each other lightened the day, lifted it, warmed the cold stone in my stomach. Love. Kindness. Support. Honor.

And pride.

Sometimes, our antennae shoot out. Sometimes, the bottom drops out or the tracks end and we drop several emotional stories. Sadly, maddeningly, it isn’t uncommon in queer worlds. It still gives us whiplash. But in the end, we have each other. There is love. Kindness. Support. Honor. And pride.

Grab a hand. We have such work to do in Orlando, in LA, in Chicago, across the country, in this Pride 2016 season, whiplash and all.

strength

 

 

Comments
  1. joanneeddy says:

    Oh, Nancy, how awful for you! How sad and wrong…and God, please let it be at the root some abominable tech breakdown that started this horrific experience for my friend.

    I know it is of little help but I am crying..tears of sorrow, empathy, support. Because of my pacemaker (me and the Tin Man) I can’t be scanned so I always have to be wanded and then patted down and while I have grown less repelled, the hair still stands up on my neck and I always feel like i did something wrong that they (are they Nuns?) are about to find out. I can only say I am sorry, my friend that this happened, that I care and would do anything to change it. Keep breathing Nancy! You are fighting the good fight. You are helping others and it’s a fight worth fighting. You are not alone. Many allies stand with you and you are winning! Even in the horror of Orlando, I hope that a small bit of good will come in finally getting some to see where bigotry leads. Love to you and healing, jo

  2. Chris says:

    After I transitioned I wondered and feared airports and my packing. Do I pack to match my gender on my ID? Do I not pack so I can be more comfortable on a long flight? Does a lack of bulge give away that I am a transgender male? What exactlly does that machine show? What are they able to see? Will they know if i pack that it isnt “real”? This all while I am getting ready to fly to Vegas to marry the love of my life. I almost lost all nerve before even getting up to the machine. As a person I have always looked up to you and still do. Thank you for all you do for the youths you work with. Because of you we get to grow up loving ourselves and being comfortable in our own skin. I am sorry that what was slated to be an amazing trip started out so horrible. Thank you for sharing and please know you are never alone.

    • Chris, thank you for reading and for being so kind and thoughtful in your comments. Such a waste of our energy to have to worry about people’s reactions to us, especially when we have so many more loving things we could be focused on. Let’s keep leading with our lights, my friend–it’s the one sure way we’re getting through these situations!

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