TSA: ‘Grow Your Hair or Buy Bigger Boobs If You Want to Clear Security Again’

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary,

    You have a lot of slam pieces against the TSA. I agree, it’s security theater. It would be awesome if you wrote a piece on what your vision for airport security would be.

    I always thought to let the federal government “create the rules and procedures” but leave it up to the airport to implement. With this solution you can even have a proper federal employee for oversight at each airport.

  2. I find it irresponsible to write this piece without any investigative journalism behind it. How do we know this is true? She might be a white lesbian Jussie Smolek. I am not saying she lied, I am saying we don’t know what happened.

    Yet you run with it as if it was the truth. And that is scary and devalues your blog.

  3. @Jack – I have written that piece many times. Reinforced cockpit doors, passengers who won’t sit passively by when terrorists attempt to hijack a plane. Separate regulating the security function from performing the security function. TSA itself has said no active threats against US commercial aviation.

  4. @Ken Adams you wrote a ton of comments bashing the idea of airlines accommodating passengers’ preferred pronouns so your reaction doesn’t surprise me at all.

  5. Why the nonsense back and front crap about gender identity? If you have male genitalia you are a make if you have female genitalia you are a famale

  6. For billions of years, there have been only two sexes, male and female. Any corporation acting like they care about proper pronouns is patronizing.

    If we can choose our gender, then why not choose our age, race, nationality, etc, according to how we feel? Predators would love this one

  7. Can I self-identify as a canine? That would mean a TSA dog would have to sniff (and lick?) me during screening, right? I know the dog would probably need to sniff my butt, but if that’s the price of airport security, I understand.

  8. Another piece of trash lacking the tiniest shred of journalistic intensity. Hey Gary, do you have some type of contract that you have to pump out a certain amount of characters per week? Between garbage like this and the constant credit card huckstering, I could only hope Boarding Area wakes up and dumps you. Your “articles” provide zero content relevant to travelers and aren’t even mildly interesting. I get it, you HATE the government, are a rabbit SJW, everything to you is racist (except for the racism you defend that happens in Crown Heights daily….because…well you know), Orange Man bad…..give us a break

  9. Are we sure this is real? This is just one person’s random comment on facebook with 37 likes.

    I mean, it might be, but it would be shocking if someone really said something so blatantly offensive. This woman doesn’t even appear to be trans-gendered. I’m just confused.

  10. This is ridiculous article, if I write something on Facebook that’s completely uncorroborated – will you also write and article about it? You must have had a hard time coming up with a story for today, and just chose the most idiotic.

  11. “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.”

    You forgot to be politically correct – in this case you should actually fault the TSA for womanhandling a passenger. That TSA screener was identified as a woman, so give the misbehaving woman credit where credit is due.

  12. I’ve been groped by male TSA agents, one in fact at TUS who seemed a little too pleased with himself having done it. What strikes me is the way the rules and policies, to include pat downs (or feel ups depending on how you define it) are actually employed. On a recent trip my hat set off the alarm, I was asked to remove it, the hat was examined and I went on my way. On the return leg of that same trip, the hat alarmed (next time I’ll take it off and set it on the conveyor) I was asked to remove it, it was examined, then the male agent said he had to pat me down. Same exact occurrence, two different responses. I spent 30 years working as an air traffic controller, we didn’t (and couldn’t) apply the ‘rules’ in this fashion.

  13. Well to defend this blatant pandering to the SJW crowd, the women who work for the TSA in La Guardia’s Terminal A are a bit more disturbing than any gay people I’ve seen.

  14. Sad that this blog post brought out the trolls. This is “View From The Wing,” not the Wall Street Journal. It’s commentary. And it’s air travel related.

    There’s no way to know whether this actually occurred or not, but haven’t any of us frequent fliers had enough interactions with TSA to realize that this is likely true? And Gary does bash TSA frequently (almost as much as AA management), but, if true, isn’t this a horrible way to treat a person? I think calling TSA out for rudeness is warranted.

  15. @Gary…Just because I posted before, does that make me wrong?
    Is it so hard for you to admit that this piece was an error in judgment?

  16. Gary’s post was a fair and thoughtful piece on something about which he has little “skin in the game”, and he gets it right (and I have often criticized Gary’s occasional posts on perceived racism, many of which I have found misguided).

    For those of you who have suggested the following, please find my response:

    “If you have male genitalia you are a male if you have female genitalia you are a female” – Except that many scientists say otherwise.

    “For billions of years, there have been only two sexes, male and female. ” – Except that’s not the case; we’ve had transgender and intersex people forever, just without names.

    “If we can choose our gender, then why not choose our age, race, nationality, etc, according to how we feel?” – Except that many people DO choose their nationality, and identify with a race that may not be obvious by skin color. Why not gender?

    “Can I self-identify as a canine?” – That’s simply unrelated to this discussion, and similar to the argument that the slippery slope of gay marriage would lead to people marrying their children or their dogs. Never happened. Never will.

    “You forgot to be politically correct” – Really, that’s what gets everyone upset about this. To those of you who find the idea of someone identifying in a non-binary manner so distressing, my questions is: Why do you care? Why does it bother you so much? It changes nothing for you, except to provide you an opportunity to learn about something you don’t understand. And if you don’t take advantage of that opportunity, life doesn’t change for you at all.

    “But I will be seen as offensive if I just ignore this!” – Yes, well, that’s the way the world works. People used the “n word” about black people, the “f word” about gays, and now they can’t. Is that such a shame?

    I suggest that you look at it this way: if you don’t understand all of this, spend some time learning. There are plenty of resources out there. The younger generations are making this change because they find that our current terms are unrepresentative of their experience, and their diverse world. That’s progress. If you don’t like it, fine, but it’s not going away. In the interim, the government and the private sector will continue to do what THEY have to do.

  17. I suspect that most TSA female agents are not all that comfortable doing a pat down on a trans “woman” who has a full set of male genitalia. Not quite sure how you protect both the passenger and TSA agent under those circumstances.

  18. I self identify as a guy who laughs at freaks who can’t look in their pants and know what they are, but if you want to buy alcohol in my store you better match your ID. Otherwise it’s sorry Charlie (works for either). Damn I’m funny

  19. I agree with the other commenters, we have security measures in place and they should be followed. When it comes to the security of our Country, all “Lets make everyone feel special” privileges should be thrown out the window. I honestly could care less what you think you are …. or are confused about … you’re either a M or F and you should play the part if you expect to fly or better yet enter another country. I bet they don’t pull that crap trying to enter the Middle East? And sorry, not ONE thing you said made one bit of difference to me. Scientist my arse.

  20. Sweet Jesus this thread.

    Ultimately, the only reason gender matters for TSA is comparing you to your ID and making sure you’re getting a patdown from the same sex. The TSA should do a better job of making this clear. The agent that told the lady to grow bigger boobs should be fired. That’s not proper conduct for any public facing professional, regardless of gender ambiguity

  21. Gary, I know you have this serious dislike of the TSA, but taking an uncorroborated story at face value looks pretty biased. Whether or not the story is true, TSA suffers from the same problem as AA, which is terrible people at the top. Most employees of both are fine or better, but a lack of accountability comes from above, ultimately to the detriment of the traveling public and employees. I think you’re pointing your finger in the wrong direction.

  22. What does this non binary mean?
    This pro noun roulette is fine for your personal interactions but TSA needs to know what plumbing you have so they can assign a same sex screener to you.
    If you have a penis you are a man, if you have a vagina you are a woman, if you had your plumbing ripped out then I guess you’re non seed.
    What a crazy world…..

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