And Now for Something Completely Different

I’ve mentioned before that the TSA isn’t the only thing I write and make humor about: I’ve been doing this writing thing for a while. Here’s a piece I have published today: fun with academia, English Department tweediness, and something we can all relate to…high school crushes.

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I Wrote an Op-Ed and it’s Published Today

It’s for The Guardianand it’s here.

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TSA Discovers 81 Pounds of Marijuana in Passenger’s Luggage

A couple of my supervisors used to say, “If it’s just a nickel or a dime bag in someone’s luggage, pretend you don’t see it, because we’re not here to get people busted for miniscule amounts of weed.” 81 pounds turned out to be a different story, however.

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How I Went Through BDL’s TSA Line Presenting as Vaguely Genderfuck and Didn’t Get Arrested

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Guest blogger Batshua bat Yehonatan

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Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking more about presenting as genderfuck in my non-work time; namely, I’ve been thinking about packing.

For anyone who doesn’t know me, let me make this clear. I am terrible at true genderfuck. Nobody is going to mistake me for a 14-year-old boy or an androgyne. I am, shall we say, rather well-endowed and I do not bind.

I’d been thinking for a while about what would happen if I got a patdown while packing, and whether or not it would flag me as a security risk or cause me to miss my flight. I don’t currently own a packer, so I’ve been packing with a wool sock which makes me feel rather … like I’m overcompensating, although my close friends swear it’s more subtle than I think.

As my combination Passover and Spring Break trip to visit my folks neared, I considered the possibility that I might want to pack on my travel day because darnit, it’s my right to present as whatever gender I want. However, as a person who always chooses to opt-out for patdown, I knew this could cause problems.

So I checked the TSA website. The transgender section only addresses binary identified people, and, of course, folks have had mixed results with their experiences traveling while trans*.

I used their feedback form and asked a number of specific questions about what would happen if a nonbinary identified person traveled presenting as their preferred gender. I got an autoresponse immediately, ["thank you for your submission"] and a “real” reply within 24 hours. I am sad to report that the “real” reply might as well have been generated by a robot. It was literally a copypaste of the TSA’s Transgender Travelers page. It wasn’t even signed.

My next stop was to call the TSA Cares hotline. I remembered immediately why people HATE calling this number. The first thing they do is ask for your full name. Now, granted, I’m hardly a threat to anything other than gender hegemony, and it gave me pause to give my name so forthrightly, because I suspect somewhere there’s a file on me under my legal name and a record of all the weirdass questions I’ve asked the TSA.

The woman who handled my call was very polite and friendly, but she had NO IDEA how to answer my question. She told me she’d worked this phone line for two years and had never been asked this question before. She asked her manager. Her manager didn’t know. However, this wonderful woman, instead of giving up, offered me a helpful alternative. She asked me which airports I was planning to fly out of and got me the contact information for the TSA head honchos at each airport.

I believe it was a Tuesday when I started the journey of reaching out to the Bradley Airport TSA guy, who is super nice and friendly and helpful. We played phone tag a bit due to his schedule, my schedule, and the crappy reception I have in the town where I serve.

Ultimately, I explained to him my situation: I am legally female, as masculine as I can dress, nobody would mistake me for anything other than a butch chick, but I prefer to pack as a way of expressing my gender. I chose to use the word “androgynous” rather than “genderfuck”, because I feel like “genderfuck” is an excessively provocative word to use with uninitiated cisgender folks who might be your allies. I let him know that I would, as I always have, prefer to opt-out and get a patdown and I realized that getting a patdown while packing might cause undue alarm and I wanted to know how best this could be handled so that nobody freaked out and I didn’t miss my flight.

He told me nobody had ever asked him about this situation before, and he provided a few options, including: having a female do the patdown, having a male do the patdown, or having my patdown split between a female officer and a male officer.  I said I was used to having a female do the patdown and was fine with that, but it was exciting to have options offered to me!

I was surprised to find out that even though my flight was on Friday, not even a whole week away, he had plenty of lead time to arrange things for me.  I was assigned a TSA Passenger Support Specialist and we set an appointment for a time for me to meet her at the security checkpoint. He also gave me the work cell number of the Transportation Security Manager for Bradley in case I showed up extra early or ran late. This was super helpful as I discovered this morning that I’d misplanned my schedule and needed to move everything up an hour. Then, of course, it rained the whole way down and I was somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes late.

After I checked in with my airline and dropped my bag off at X-Ray, I was met by my TSA Passenger Support Specialist, who took me right through to the head of the Pre✔︎ line. I joked that I should have gender issues more often.

The head of the Bradley TSA had warned me that since people perceived as women don’t generally have bulges in their pants, I would need to disclose my “anomaly” and it might warrant further screening. Because I was identifying as nonbinary, the transgender policy doesn’t currently cover me.

Before commencing the patdown, I had literally announced “There is an anomaly in my pants”.  I found out that technically my sock does count as a prosthetic, but since I’m not identifying as a trans man, again, they have to check my “anomaly”.

It was suggested that since I’d have to remove “the anomaly” to scan it for residue, I should have a private patdown. Basically, you’re not allowed to reach into your pants and pull stuff out in a public place because children are going through security, too.

So I went to get a private patdown with my TSA Passenger Support Specialist and another female TSA agent.  The procedure is the same as a regular opt-out patdown, but because there was an anomaly in my pants, I had to have a second patdown, known as a resolution patdown. They swabbed my TSA Passenger Support Specialist’s gloves for residue, and they had to x-ray my sock. Then the other officer did the resolution patdown where they patted vertically and horizontally over the front of my groin to ensure I wasn’t hiding anything else in there. They were totally respectful and non-creepy about the whole thing. I felt pretty fucking empowered.

After I was done, the Transportation Security Manager gave me an official TSA comment/complaint card as well as his business card. He reminded me that if I preferred, I could always check my packer and put it in after I pass through the security checkpoint. I agreed and pointed out that for some people, the wait in the security checkpoint line without packing would be extremely emotionally uncomfortable for them, and so I figured it was worth trying it out to see what it was like for all the people who might want to do this but are afraid to ask.

The man in charge of Bradley’s TSA department has put me in touch with the man who is in charge of the TSA’s diversity department so that we can talk about what kind of policy changes might benefit nonbinary travelers. I don’t know how much weight my words will have, but if anyone has suggestions/requests, I will forward those along.

One thing I am suggesting to him is a clearer combined policy on prosthetics. Officially, there are THREE pages that address prosthetics. One handles “prosthetics” — things like arms and legs. One handles “breast cancer survivors”, and one handles “transgender travelers”. If you read the prosthetics page, it says that your prosthetic may be handled and removed and checked by the TSA folks. If you read the breast cancer survivor page, it says if you’re wearing a prosthetic, they can’t ask to look at it or for you to remove it, but if it’s packed in your carry-on, they might need to look at it, but it’s excluded from the 3-1-1 rule. If you read the transgender traveler page, it reads very much like the breast cancer survivor page. I think it makes a lot more sense to have all three pages refer to ONE page that clearly addresses different kinds of prosthetics so that it doesn’t look like there’s conflicting information about what you may or may not be wearing.

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Batshua is a genderqueer gray-asexual panromantic polyamorous person. They are a neuroatypical, chronically ill, invisibly-disabled Jewish pagan living in rural western Massachusetts. Ze recently started identifying as more strongly genderfuck than previously and has been experimenting with various forms of presentation. She doesn’t generally consider herself an activist, but he got the idea in his head to pack while flying home for Passover this spring. Batshua generally doesn’t care what kind of pronouns are used as long as they refer to sentient beings.

If anyone in the gender variant community, or anyone else, would like to get in touch with Batshua, email me at jason.e.harrington@gmail.com, and I will forward the information.

Related reading: The Most Awkward Moment for a TSA Screener.

Follow me on Twitter here.

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This Site Has Reached 1 Million Views

About 3 months after starting this site, I told myself I couldn’t stop blogging until I reached one million views. I figured that would mean I would be at this site for at least 3 years. One million views was to me and this site what California was to the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. When days came around when I really didn’t feel like writing about the goddamned TSA anymore (after working a job that you dislike, there definitely comes a point at which you say “The last thing I want to do is think about that job”), I would tell myself, “Well, we can’t stop. We’ve got to make it out to 1-million-hits.”

Tonight, with the 1 million mark reached less than 1.5 years after first clicking publish on this site, I have decided that I am going to be taking a break from this blog for a while.  All along, I envisioned Taking Sense Away, post-anonymous period, as a place where I would begin relaying specific anecdotes that I experienced during my 6 years of employment with the Transportation Security Administration at O’Hare airport in Chicago. However, I have now realized that it would be silly to begin dropping that information here, because, all along, my ultimate goal has been to write a book based on my experiences at the TSA.

I am a writer, first and foremost. Writing has been my true passion since the age of 7. Really, I identify myself more closely with my fellow contributors at McSweeney’s than I do with the TSA. It has been that way for a long time. I have very little in common with the average TSA employee, or with the average TSA-hater, for that matter. My days and nights at the TSA were spent dreaming about the fantastic possibilities of literary bliss; possibilities that materialized ghost-like each day (Xanadu mirage of “brooks and beautiful meadows” ranged over the crowds of bristling airline passengers, conjured by Coleridge and Xanax popped to make the days tolerable); on the checkpoint, as I patted men down and viewed women’s nude images all in the name of national security, I wanted nothing more than to return to my pen and paper so as to set spinning in motion little worlds, made cunningly.

Writers write what they know (forgive me for burnishing that rusty old saw) and a lot of what I know involves 6 years at the TSA. I have seen hurled at me the trite, predictable, tired accusation: “He is doing what he does for attention.

To this I say: of course I am, you dullard. When anyone says something or writes something, I am sure that, for the most part, he or she always hopes that it will come to someone’s attention. If one actually finds him- or herself in possession of information that will be of interest and concern to American taxpayers, international travelers, academics and historians– ultimately, the entire world– then, surely, that person will hope that– should he or she choose to speak out–  the utterance will come to someone’s attention. Not just someone’s attention, but many people’s attention. Millions of people’s attention. Because my true love is writing, literature and art, I want any piece of writing for which I have shed the proverbial blood, sweat and tears to come to the attention of as many people as possible. I know of a few current and former TSA employees who have responded to this blog and my writing in this manner:

“I worked for the TSA, and I know everything that you [Jason] know, but I didn’t say anything, because I am loyal and patriotic and believe in doing things the right way [i.e., filing an official request to TSA headquarters for permission to speak one's mind in the media]. I didn’t tell the world about the many absurdities, interesting stories and abuse of public funds that I witnessed at the TSA because I’m not interested in just getting attention.”

To which I say: bullshit, good sir or madam. If I had a dollar for every TSA employee I knew (managers and up included) who said “Someone needs to write a book about all of this, or make a T.V. show or a movie out of it,” I would have several hundred extra dollars right now.

In fact, several former TSA employees have already tried to write books about their time at the TSA (and here is the little-known first former TSA employee/blogger, who started his site nearly 3 years prior to mine. I only discovered it two months before clicking publish on this site. He actually wasn’t too bad; he just lost steam after two months). One of those books was by a female former TSA employee who converted to Islam, or some such, and wrote a book about it all. Another was by a different former TSA employee lady who wrote several books about her opinions on the Department of Homeland Security. I just spent 10 minutes trying to re-discover their books via Google, and couldn’t do it. Need I say more about how well they pulled off those books? Someone was going to eventually be the first voice to come out of the TSA, and yet, predictably– even though everyone I knew agreed that someone needed to step up and be the insider voice of TSA– some of those same people cry “attention monger!” as soon as someone pulls it off, or get up in arms when it turns out that actually making such a thing happen involves more than a polite, Blogger Bob tea-and-crumpets affair peppered with avuncular, government-approved jokes.

So it goes. To those TSA employees (and I could theoretically name dozens) who said that someone should step up and bring the realities of the everyday TSA screener’s life to the attention of the world, and who now cry foul in light of the fact that I’ve made inroads in doing just that, I ask: Why didn’t you do it first? Or why couldn’t you do it first?

At any rate, what I really want now is to write the full truth about my time at the TSA, in as much detail as possible– with all the many shades and gradations that make up any attempt to sketch the truth to the best of one’s ability. To do that, I have to birth a substantial literary work, in the memoir vein. And that is the reason I am taking time away from this blog: to write the book.

A month ago, I decided to try to read the comment section of a major Brazilian newspaper that re-published one of my POLITICO articles– in the Portuguese– and one of the few things I could make out in translation was:

“He sees these things at TSA and now suddenly he is the Virgin Mary, innocent of sin, speaking of all these things.”

That made me smile. The commentator had a point (I love Brazil). No, I am not free of sin. And in order to tell the full story of my time at the TSA, I will have to write about my life, as well, including all the sinful personal confessions that I have yet to make; including all the transgressions I myself was guilty of as a TSA employee. Indeed, after my book comes out (God willing) I will probably lose many of my fans, because the truth is, I have made many mistakes in my lifetime; the truth is, for a long time I was not very different from the “other kind” of TSA employee that the public hates. I am not at all without sin and regret.

Do not think that I will stop at exposing the imperfections and tragic flaws of the TSA– I will confess all of my imperfections and tragic flaws, as well.  I have a lot of work before me now, in trying to weave the tragicomedy of my life into the tragicomedy of the TSA. I am also working on writing projects that have nothing to do with the TSA. I have been writing about things other than the TSA for most of my life, and I will spend most of the rest of my life doing the same. The writing project I am most excited about right now involves the unsolved murder of a black woman in 1940s Mississippi– my grandmother, specifically.

I will update this blog occasionally as I work on my TSA book. My only hope is that I won’t lose all my supporters after I have laid the whole picture out for the world to see– for when an artist presents a true picture of life as best as he or she can, it is always a silkscreen print stippled with dirt.

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I Am Glad to Turn This Site Over to TSA Employees and Former TSA Employees for a While

Over the past year, I have received some interesting email from current and former TSA employees, expressing very real, legitimate, and non-“SSI”-divulging  concerns that the public has every right to know about, and which TSA screeners across the nation have every right to see being published. The thing is, most TSA employees are far too scared of retaliation from local management to express their concerns in the media, even though current federal employees do have First Amendment rights, as long as what they write or say falls under the category of public concern.

For the most part, the media is not interested in publishing non-sensational, relatively “banal” articles involving true, addressable organizational problems within the TSA (promotion system, cronyism/favoritism, the re-certification system etc). The media is only interested in eye-popping headlines. That is just reality, as I’ve found out. However, as a former TSA employee who is now in charge of an outlet that can provide substantial exposure, I am fully willing to give voice to TSA employees who wish to exercise their Constitutional, First Amendment rights as federal employees.

Even though I was once told that I “Can’t be doing things like writing letters to the New York Times” by a TSA manager (initials M.R., no longer employed) after a letter of mine was published in the New York Times (that manager’s advice to me definitely felt like a threat), I would like TSA employees around the nation to know that federal employees do have First Amendment rights, and are legally permitted to speak out, without being at risk of losing their jobs (per several federal court rulings), as long as their speech acts fall under the aegis of public concern.

Since the fourth branch of government is mostly uninterested and or unfamiliar with the day-to-day concerns of a Transportation Security Administration employee (since those concerns are usually deemed to not be “headline-worthy”), and since I, as a former TSA employee, am interested in those day-to-day concerns, and find them to be absolutely headline-worthy, I would like to make it known to TSA employees across the nation that this site, right here, Taking Sense Away, is a platform available to you from which you may exercise your First Amendment rights as federal employees, and have your opinions and concerns published for a substantial number of people to see, without having to overcome the unfairly high bar that most members of the sensational-headline-hungry media set as a requirement for access to publication.

The reason I am writing this is because I have recently talked to TSA employees with stories and legitimate complaints that are clearly in the realm of public concern, and who were, unfortunately (with a couple exceptions) unaware of the concept of public concern– in other words, they were under the impression that, as TSA employees, they had no First Amendment rights when it came to expressing their opinions in newspapers, or any public forums. Personally, as a TSA employee, I was never given any training modules making clear to me my First Amendment rights as a government employee when it came to expressing myself in the media. I was given training modules that informed me of my Whistleblowing Act powers, yes, assuming something was very wrong/corrupt in the TSA environment around me, and assuming that my immediate superiors weren’t addressing my concerns about what was wrong after I contacted them.

But as for my right to, say, read the New York Times, see a debate raging that was of national/public concern, and simply express my opinion on the issue so as to meaningfully add to the national/public debate, with the insight that comes with being a federal employee, I was told that “You can’t be doing that here at TSA.” And that was it.

I have approximately 6 great letters from 6 current and former TSA screeners that I am going to publish within the next 2 weeks. All of them express information that the public has every right to know, and which in no way divulge any sort of “SSI.”  If any other former or current TSA screeners have information regarding things they witnessed as TSA employees that fall under the category of public concern, I want you to know that this site is a place that you can turn to, and which will do its best to publish what you have to say.

The following is a direct quote from David Hudson, research attorney at the First Amendment Center (law degree from Vanderbilt University).”Disgruntled worker” is a tricky distinction in the following excerpt– but it seems like such a porous criterion that it may ultimately be all but irrelevant:

“Public employees can contribute greatly to civic debate. They are uniquely
situated to speak out on important issues of which the average citizen is unaware. When public employees speak as citizens rather than as disgruntled workers, courts must respect their free-speech interests.

Justice O’Connor recognized this point when she wrote that ‘government
employees are often in the best position to know what ails the agencies for which they work; public debate may gain much from their informed opinions.’

This same principle applies in retaliation and patronage cases. When a public employer retaliates against an employee simply because it dislikes the content of his or her speech, other employees are discouraged from making comments that could be interpreted as critical.” (Source)

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TSA All Surround Security Program

Over at the TSA News Blog, Lisa Simeone has details on the ASS program. It is an April Fool’s piece. I’m admitting that it’s an April Fool’s piece because it is now at least 9 P.M. wherever you are (for Americans), and you’ve probably already seen some April Fool’s Day activity going down, so by now your defenses are well-raised in regard to any April Foolery. There’s no point in even bothering to try to hit anyone with an April Fool’s Day surprise at this point in the day/night, the way that I see it. But it is an amusing piece from Lisa Simeone, here.

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