Who Is More Likely to Get Stopped by the TSA?
By Anders Howerton
I get nervous every time I travel outside the country. That’s because, technically, I’m undocumented. I’m always afraid I won’t get back in.
I don’t mean I'm “undocumented” in that commonly heard identifier in population politics. I’m white and American-born and thereby privileged. I have a social security number attached to my legal name, and so I’m allowed to work at as many shitty jobs as I want and to live indefinitely anywhere in the United States; I choose San Francisco. I am, however, undocumented in the regular ol’ definition of the word: I lack authentication.
I’m a transgender man. Although I’ve medically aligned, I haven’t yet made that final legal leap with the law. My various forms of ID don’t look like me. On my driver’s license and my passport, I’m categorized as female with an extremely feminine name. I haven’t placed an ad in the paper so that anyone on earth could potentially dispute my petitions to change; I haven’t followed that up with a court appointment to plead my case before a judge; and I haven’t paid the Superior Court several hundred dollars to finalize those changes.
I’m lucky that this doesn’t cause me many problems in the Bay Area. Being trans isn’t an anomaly here, and in my experience people aren’t generally too shocked or outwardly bigoted when they discover this “inconsistency.” But I slip into a state of mild terror whenever I’m about to travel, especially to another country. This city is – and hopefully will continue to be – a place of refuge for people like me. There are few places on earth like it.
My girlfriend, who has also been my primary travel partner since I transitioned, doesn’t understand why I haven’t taken care of this name and gender change business. Aside from the everyday social lubricant it might provide, she consistently drives home the pragmatics of the situation. Having been raised in part by Holocaust survivors heavily informs her biweekly suggestion to get the damn papers in order!
Instead, I just keep putting it off and approaching border crossings in a panic. Under the Patriot Act, TSA officials are supposed to be watching out for inconsistencies like mine. I’m supposed to pop up among categories of red flags, taken aside, questioned. This has never happened, which I’m super grateful for. I’m supposed to carry around a letter from my physician with my passport that explains my “condition” and that I’m undergoing supervised “treatment.” Never once has an airport security person asked to see this letter or paid me any attention at all, actually. Never once, and not just in America but in any of the four countries whose boundaries I’ve crossed in the three years since I became the white, blonde, blue-eyed man that I am, have I been given even a sidelong glance at an airport security checkpoint. If I were slightly more naive, I’d think that some trans-positive diversity training somewhere paid off. Let’s be honest though, there are lots of transgender accounts of harassment over legal ID issues. The truth is that I’m a white guy being ushered through security. They’re not even looking at my papers.
My girlfriend, on the other hand, who wouldn’t even dream of double parking, and whose abidance to rules and regulations would never allow her driver’s license to enter its month of expiry, seems to set off all the alarms. While she says she isn’t attached to any one racial identity, some of her roots trace to the Middle East. The random taxonomer, however, has an appetite for the quick generalization, and this especially turns out to be true if that observer happens to work for the TSA.
It could be coincidence – we’re talking here about a 100% repeat occurrence – but every time we’ve lined up together at a departure checkpoint or a port of entry, her appearance and her ID invite a series of extra questions. Some agent, for some reason, needs information about her family name or where it came from. Without fail I set off the metal detector with my phone or coins in my pocket, but my girlfriend is the one escorted off to the side for some sort of extra brush-pat-tickle-down.
Airport security and its various encounters with “passing” are complicated, and my girlfriend is still asking me why I don’t prepare for these encounters to make things just a little bit simpler, if only for myself. The answer is that I’m still in a state of shock. In a few short years I went from being a funny-looking white lesbian to your average ghost-faced dude. These are startlingly different ways to be in the world and to be treated by the world. Changing a few simple letters of identification has the power to change both perspective and association. Frankly, I’m worried about that simplicity because it’s one that implicates everyone who is other. These border crossings are emblematic of a new pervasive ease in my life. While part of that is me becoming me, the trickier part is that who I’m becoming happens to be accompanied by enormous privilege. I’m not ready to disappear completely in this way, and I’m not yet ready to risk forgetting what it used to be like.