The TSA Behavior Detection Program: Finally, the Public Hears What We’ve Been Saying for Years

I started this blog with three primary messages to bring to the public. The Big 3 were often lost in the noise of the various controversies and viral events that came from this site. But to recap, here they are:

1. The full-body backscatter radiation scanners used to view nude images of passengers in private rooms were useless– a complete waste of taxpayer money. The TSA was lying to the public about the efficacy of those scanners; all of us TSA screeners on the floor were aware of their flaws. They were a blatant and unwarranted infringement upon people’s privacy. Within a few weeks of this site first gaining media attention, the TSA canceled its contract with Rapiscan, and officially began phasing out the full-body backscatter radiation scanners. Coincidence? Maybe. As I’ve said before, I leave that up to the reader to decide.

2. There are bad TSA screeners out there, as the public so often gets word of, but there are also good TSA screeners out there. Those on the inside of the TSA– those workers who are actually out on the checkpoint floor day in and day out– know that the central problem is that the TSA’s work culture and structure is one that encourages bad screeners to cling to the job, and makes good screeners want to quit as soon as possible. The TSA’s annual recertification system is a large part of the problem.

And finally:

3. The TSA’s SPOT program, also known as the Behavior Detection Program, is another sham.

Number 1 has been addressed by the TSA in many ways, as they were caught with their pants down in regard to the radiation scanners. Number 2 is an issue that the public still hasn’t taken notice of, and probably never will, since it’s not the kind of issue that’s conducive to splashy headlines. And now, at long last, number 3 is grabbing headlines, with the ACLU’s lawsuit against the TSA in regard to its SPOT program, and the release of documents detailing some of the absurd, headline-friendly details of that program. In the media and government game, the key to getting important information to the public is a headline-worthy aspect to the story. It is an unfortunate reality, but reality nonetheless.

So I’ll say it again, for about the sixth time since this blog’s publication: many of us have been trying to tell the public for years that the TSA’s Behavior Detection Program is useless and unnecessarily compromises people’s rights. Now it seems the broader population may have finally taken notice. I encourage you to read this article I wrote about it, almost two years ago, if you haven’t already.

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On Security Theater and the Ebola Panic

I wrote a piece for Vanity Fair on security theater and Ebola.

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Article in The Guardian

I have a Sunday Op-Ed in The Guardian today, involving the War on Terror, Hollywood plots, and the Syria campaign.

I’m on Twitter here.

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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.

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