Dear Sir or Madam,
I am writing to inquire as to the rules for your airport and the TSA in general in regards to what constitutes inappropriate touching. Yesterday afternoon, 7 April, I passed through security at JFK in Terminal 7 and opted out of the scanning machine. The office who patted me down touched my genitals twice through my clothes, once per leg pat. This experience left me feeling humiliated and angry. I want to determine if I what I experienced conforms to the law or if I should file a complaint of assault.
Thank you for your time.
Dr. Charles Hutchins
So that happened.
I don’t want to go through the naked scanning machines partly due to concerns about radiation. The machines are not regularly calibrated or inspected and are not held to any kind of standard even approaching how medical devices are regulated. Even if they’re safe when they’re first installed the lack of maintenance is a major cause for concern.
And part of my concern with the devices is that they’re invasive without actually increasing security. That the newer machines, such as the ones installed at JFK, do not actually allow somebody to look at naked images does not allay these concerns. Operators pick a pink or a blue button depending on their guess as to the passenger’s primary and secondary sex characteristics. The machine then takes a scan and compares the passenger’s naked body with an idealised form of naked bodies. Areas of difference are then highlighted for additional scrutiny. Therefore, anyone who has a hidden disability that impacts their physical form or otherwise has an atypical body configuration must disclose this to the TSA workers.
My choices would therefore seem to be discussing my genitals with a TSA worker or having them felt by a TSA worker. Because this discussion would likely be extremely triggering, embarrassing and exposes me to the possibility of harassment, I’ve always chosen to opt out of the scanning machines, as is my right under US law. However, while the screener hopefully was not entirely aware as to the shape of my genitals, having them touched by a stranger under these circumstances also turns out to be more disturbing than I would have expected.
While I understand that not all genital touching is necessarily sexual in nature, this is a fundamentally different experience than one in a medical context. When examined by doctors, they explain what is going to happen immediately before it happens. While the TSA agent did mumble through a list of his prescribed actions, I was not warned of what was about to happen as it arose. Also, medical examinations always at least offer a chaperone or else provide one automatically. Finally, medical examinations are concerned primarily with my health and well-being, which is exactly the opposite power dynamic. Because consent is somewhat unclearly explained and is effectively coerced, this kind of invasive touching invites comparisons to sexual assault. And honestly, I don’t know if I was assaulted, as this has never happened to me before.
One of the oldest rights in the US, even before the Bill of Rights applied to individuals, is the right to travel unmolested. The TSA agent clearly violated that right and my person, so my only question is whether this is condemned or compelled by the law, as it certainly does not fall in between.
In frustration and unhappiness, I asked the agent if it would be easier if I removed my trousers. I then immediately apologised for this comment, saying he was just doing his job, which I assumed to be true at the time. He replied threatening me with arrest if I did so. Even after explaining several times that I was not intending to remove any clothes and regretted my choice of words, he kept repeating threats to escalate, advising me not to make things more difficult for myself.
I deeply regret that I’ve planned two separate trips to the US instead of combining everything into one trip. There is no question this experience will effect how often I visit home. I am a stage where I am not easily triggered by things related to being transgender, but for a lot of people, this situation, if the screener’s action was legal, would be so triggering that it would effectively ban then from air travel. Other travellers are also likely to avoid visiting the us, including tourists, which obviously has economic impact, and academics attending conferences as well as those travelling for business. This thus then increases an intellectual and economic isolation of the US.
For all the people I missed in New York who are wondering when I’ll next pass through, I’m afraid it’s not going to be for a very long while.