My parents divorced when I was very young. I lived in New York and my father lived in California. At first he’d make same day turns, Los Angeles – New York JFK – Los Angeles to pick me up and bring me out to the West Coast… and then back to New York.
I’m sure he was thrilled when I started flying as an unaccompanied minor in the early 1980s. I was brought to the airport dressed in slacks, a jacket and a tie when I was six and seven years ago.
Flying has changed a lot since then. It’s become far more small-d democratic. People of all walks of life and circumstances fly much more easily nowadays, and they more or less come as they are. But it’s no longer limited to just dress, either. More people of all kinds and experiences fly than ever before and modern air travel accommodates this — for the most part.
During the first half of the 1990s pop culture understood someone who wasn’t clearly male or female with Julia Sweeney’s Saturday Night Live character Pat. Is she Patricia, or is he Patrick? Guests would try to determine which one Pat was but without be rude and asking.
American culture has become far more accepting of people who identify as non-binary gender. It’s almost remarkable, for instance, that in Showtime’s Billions Damian Lewis’s Bobby Axelrod will do anything to destroy Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor Mason — but he always respect’s Taylor’s pronouns.
Travel is generally at the forefront of toleration. United, for instance, was first to offer ‘undisclosed’ and ‘unspecified’ gender options when booking a ticket. Air Italy, 49% owned by Qatar Airways, was first in Europe to let customers define gender themselves.
That seems to be the trend everywhere except the TSA where they still apparently expect passengers to conform to whatever gender stereotype matches the preferences of their screeners on any given day.
What use is self-identifying to an airline when you book your tickets when individual TSA screeners enforce their own antiquated notion of who you’re supposed to be? You don’t have to be non-binary to run into problems, if you simply don’t appear masculine or feminine enough.
Suzanne Fine writes that going through a security checkpoint at Newark prior to her United flight on Saturday, a female screener she needed to “grow [her] hair out or buy bigger boobs” before passing through TSA again.
I don’t know Suzanne Fine or how she identifies. From her photos my own assumption is – she looks like a woman. However the TSA screener at the Newark checkpoint apparently didn’t think she looked like enough of one. And that’s outrageous and offensive.
The TSA makes you self-identify as one gender or the other. According to TSA’s page on transgender screening, when going through the security nude-o-scope “the TSA officer will press a button designating a gender based on how you present yourself, male or female.” If you get a pat down it will be “conducted by an officer of the same gender.” In other words, you must identify as one or the other and it needs to be made clear to TSA which.
Airlines, as private businesses, have to respond to the commercial pressures and opinions of their customers. If passengers demand tolerance and inclusion, companies will often find themselves at the forefront of social change — whereas government bureaucracies tend to be far more ossified.
The TSA, though, exercising the color of authority needs to step back and evaluate how it manhandles citizens and recognize that wearing a blue uniform doesn’t make them arbiters of a passenger’s gender or sexuality.