Confession #7: The Most Awkward Moment for a TSA Screener.

I endured many, many awkward moments during my 6 years of employment at TSA. But by far, the most awkward routine occurrence was this: the moment when an androgynous passenger came through the full body scanner.

For those of you who don’t know, one byproduct of the wasteful, incompetent, and ham-handed implementation of full body scanners by the Transportation Security Administration over the past 3 years has been an all new opportunity for humiliation at the airport for people who are gender-ambiguous. Where before, androgynous passengers were largely free of the scenario in which they had to opt out of radiation-emitting full body scanners, and of frequently occurring mystery pat downs caused by poorly functioning millimeter wave scanners with outrageous false positive rates, now, the androgynous passenger finds him or herself walking a virtual minefield of potential scenarios in which a TSA screener will utter these words, in front of at least a few strangers:

“Excuse me: are you a male, or a female?”

You see, in order to resolve an anomaly on a full body scanner (i.e., if the operator of a Rapiscan backscatter radiation sees something “suspicious” on a passenger’s body in a remote viewing room, or if the Automated Target Recognition algorithm on an L3 millimeter wave scanner produces an anomaly box on the generic, non-nude images produced by those machines), it becomes essential for a TSA screener to know the gender of the passenger, in order for that screener to initiate a same-sex pat down for the passenger.

TSA screeners are generally not allowed to pat down the opposite sex, much to the chagrin of countless TSA screeners, I assure you.

What all of this means is that a TSA screener will occasionally find him or herself in the harrowing position of having approximately 5 seconds to decide what gender the boy/girl-looking passenger in front of  him or her is, in order to call for the appropriate male, or female assist. Oftentimes, if the screener is unable to decide, he or she will outright ask the passenger, “Excuse me: are you a male, or a female?”

Being that the average  TSA screener is not the brightest star in the galaxy, this humiliating question is usually posed by a complete moron-of-a-TSA screener whose education level is far below that of the androgynous passenger’s, making the situation all the more degrading for said passenger. But sometimes, it’s just a new-hire TSA screener (See: “White Shirt” in the Insider’s TSA Dictionary) who hasn’t had 10 years of employment with TSA to figure out a better way of going about this.

These awkward scenarios play out all across the nation, at hundreds of airports, on thousands of checkpoints, day in, and day out. So you’d think that TSA headquarters and upper management, with their near-6 figure salaries, would have found a way to ease the humiliation of these extremely common occurrences, both for taxpayers, and for its employees, right?

Of course they haven’t! This is our TSA we’re talking about, here!

Luckily for the TSA PR Department, the vast majority of these situations happen to people who are relatively defenseless, and who lack a voice with which to express the deep humiliation they endure on account of being asked, “Excuse me, are you a male, or a female?” in front of dozens of strangers.

Unluckily for them, one of them was a blogger, whose blog post was republished by the Huffington Post this morning: an article entitled “Why I Hate the TSA.” From the article:

“The passenger behind me was lucky that he was all lined up as a man. The woman operating the machine hit the ‘male’ button. Zip, bang, boom! The man got to step out and go on his merry, male-identified way. Now it was my turn. 

The woman signaled for me to step back inside the scanner, and then — here’s the kicker — she asked me, ‘Would you mind if I ask you if you are a man or a woman?’

Yes, I mind. Wouldn’t you mind the question: ‘Hey, are you a man or a woman? Are you a freak? I can’t tell. Hey, do you have a penis to go with those breasts?’ 

I didn’t have my friends with me, or a girlfriend to squeeze my hand and whisper, ‘It doesn’t matter, baby. It’s OK.’ I was without coping mechanisms in that situation. So what did I do?

First, I tweeted about how angry I was, including to the TSA. Then I took a few minutes to call a very good friend for help. She was on my side, and I teared up as I told her what had happened. And I wrote, of course. It made me feel better immediately. I am filing a complaint with the TSA.”

And after filing her complaint, she had her blog post republished by HuffPo, and now thousands of people hate the TSA just a little more, on top of the hundreds of androgynous people who endure this situation every day across the nation. Good job, TSA headquarters! And here’s the real kicker: you could easily avoid most of this! For future reference, here’s an almost complete solution to this routine problem of yours.

Solution to Yet Another TSA Publicity Debacle, From a Former TSA Screener

See, some of us thinking TSA screeners, who were actually out on the floor for several years encountering this stressful and embarrassing situation time and time again, had to be resourceful. We quickly found a clever little solution to this problem, and formulated a little rule among ourselves:

As a TSA screener, you never, ever, ask a passenger the question: “Are you a male, or a female,” because that is a question that should generally not be posed by one human being to another human being under any circumstance at an airport.

And how do you go about doing this, you may be asking right now, TSA Public Relations Department? I’ll tell you, free of charge!

The TSA screener asks to see the passenger’s I.D. so as to read the little section that says “gender,” and then goes from there!

Voila! Now I know what else you may be saying to your computer screens, current TSA screeners reading this in a break room at an airport:

But what if the gender on the I.D. is not how the passenger wishes to present themselves?

Well, the chances of that happening are actually smaller than the chances that you’re going to embarrass the living shit out of everybody within 10 feet of the full body scanner by uttering the words, “Excuse me: are you a dude, or a chick?” And even if it does happen, the passenger will likely just say, “No. Although my I.D. says ‘Male’ I’d prefer to be patted down by a female.” Which clears the whole situation up much more smoothly than a direct do you have a penis, or a hooha strike, you’ll find.

Now I know what you may be saying to your computer screens right now, over in Virginia and Washington D.C., TSA higher-ups, because I know you guys read this blog:

What if the passenger doesn’t have his or her I.D. on their person?

Boy, do I have a doozy of a surprise for you guys, today! Because guess what? You guys are the ones holding the reins of this this big old neurologically-disabled bear-of-an-organization! Can you guess what you have the power to do? You can rewrite the goddamned SOP so that screeners will encourage passengers to keep their I.D.s with them through the screening process. OR (and in cases where the passenger forgets his or her I.D. in their coat pocket, etc.) you can train your officers to discretely pull the passenger off to the side for a moment, without stopping the whole security theater show, in order to take a quick look at their boarding pass and I.D., so as to spare  both screeners and taxpayers this soul-destroyingly embarrassing moment.

And finally, there is a small possibility that some SOP-whiz kid of a TSA employee is out there right now, saying to his or her screen:

Technically, that’s already in the SOP, Section 4,67A Subsection 43, paragraph 8, four sentences in.

Well guess what? If that’s already in the SOP, then not enough TSA screeners know about it, I’ll tell you that goddamned much. Do you know how I know? Because I never once in 6 years heard a single supervisor, manager, Federal Security Director, or training class instructor outline the advice I just offered. And do you know how else I’m certain that not enough TSA screeners know about this nifty little solution to an extremely common, panic inducing TSA checkpoint scenario?



Honest to God, this whole running-a-blog-as-a-former TSA screener thing is exhausting.



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