Body Policing: Journalist faces trans issues at TSA checkpoints

Hailey Melville near the Chicago River and Trump Tower
Hailey Melville near the Chicago River and Trump Tower.

By Hailey Melville

This story was previously published in USA Today and Out Digital.

At the security entrance to the William P. Hobby Airport in Houston, I was handed a customer satisfaction card. It was small and green, just big enough for the airport logo, phone number and my comments about the service I received.

I felt sick. “In 20 minutes, they probably won’t be happy they gave this to me,” I said, struggling to seem tough.

My two friends, fellow graduate students from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, were moving quickly through the empty velvet-roped lines and it wasn’t clear they had heard me. I was muffled. At my senior prom, I told my date I loved her but my voice was lost in cafeteria-monitor-level Rascal Flatts. I wouldn’t find out for two weeks that she heard what I said. It was like that.

I had been lucky leaving Chicago. Instead of being told to remove my shoes, place my laptop in a bin, remove my jacket and step into one of those sci-fi full-body scanners, I was hurriedly shuffled through a metal detector. Out of my control but a pleasant surprise.

Whatever fortune I had cashed in clearly stayed behind in Chicago.

What happened from here was pretty consistent — step into the body scanner, legs spread and arms up, watch the white bar shift from right to left, and walk out. Except this time would be different, I told myself. Before I even entered, I had a plan to avoid the inevitable.

My traveling companions were already on the other side, tying their shoes and re-packing their bags. They were preoccupied and out of earshot. I turned to the agent operating the scanner.

“Excuse me, before I go through the scanner can you push the “male” icon?” I asked to no reply.

From there the results were the same as always — a body outline on their monitor, unaltered except for a bright yellow box around the crotch.

“That can’t be right,” the agent said.

She told me to pull up my pants tighter and sent me through the scanner again. Same result.

“I’m transgender,” I said, frustrated. “I tried to tell you.”

With an eye to sensitivity, the Transportation Security Administration has recently updated its policies regarding transgender passengers. Before these updates, agents patted down passengers like me in the open, next to the sensor.

These changes give passengers a choice before it starts: would you like to be touched in a private room or right here? They also mandate that all pat-downs be performed by someone of the same identifying gender.

I wasn’t offered a choice this time, but that hardly mattered.

I was once again asked to pull up my pants. My agent ran her hands down the back of my thighs first, gradually moving upward. When she was done, she moved her hands over my buttocks. She finished and directed me to turn around.

Where were my friends? Were they still busy? Had they noticed? As my agent rubbed the back of her hands over unexpected genitalia she finally got it.

“Oh, I see!” she proclaimed.

My hands were wiped down with paper swabs and I was free to go. I grabbed my bag and we walked down the terminal.

I thought about our former administration. I thought about our current one. I thought about Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos and vile Facebook commenters with bald eagles for profile pictures, calling me ill and saying I need treatment.

When the Obama administration sent a letter outlining protections for transgender students last May, I felt our nation’s progress. Something so simple, the right to the appropriate bathroom, was a recognition of our community. It was an affirming stance, practical implications aside.

Walking toward the gate, I didn’t yet know that the Trump administration would take that away, or that as a result, the Supreme Court would decide not to hear a potentially definitive case on transgender rights.

I was silent in the airport and so were my grad school colleagues. We were close, but hadn’t known each other long. Did they still like me?

We took a seat near the gate, things slightly calmer. I had practice with the cool-down.

But I still couldn’t let it go.

“Is everything OK, Hailey?” asked one of my friends, Jenna West.

“Yeah. Sorry, that just happens every time,” I said. “They always pat me down.”

She and our other friend, Eric Burgher, were surprised. They were given a riddle to answer, a puzzle to solve. Their eyes were confused.

“Really?” asked Eric. “Why? That’s so weird. Have you visited dangerous countries or something?”

“Yeah, why?” Jenna echoed.

They didn’t know. They hadn’t seen. Thank God.

I deflected and we boarded the plane. I told myself I was lucky. I’ve never missed a flight, never been called by the wrong gender or verbally harassed. For every time I was touched and put on display, thousands of transgender Americans were too.

I never filled out the comment card.

I was too exhausted.

Photo at top: Journalist Hailey Melville near the Chicago River and Trump Tower. (Hailey Melville/MEDILL)