Sadly, airports do not recognize gender sensitivity

Photo Credit: Phoebe Lim

Last week, an issue was hastily slathered onto the news involving a trans woman’s troubles while she — Shadi Petosky — went through security at an airport in Florida. As she made her way through the full body scanner, labelled as ‘female’ by the electronic system, security afterward took her aside to gruffly explain that they found an “anomaly,” or a security threat, in her genital region — also known as her penis. Needless to say she felt incredibly discriminated against while having to explain her genitalia to security.

After detaining her in a room for a short while, security then released her, but not before Petosky saturated social media with her situation, pictures and all. Since then, there has been an abundance of controversy over the reasons for a ‘male’ and ‘female’ setting on airport scanners, as this discriminates against anyone from trans communities.

This issue is tough one. It’s multi-faceted, and incredibly sensitive, so I’ll tread carefully.

Firstly, there’s no doubt in my mind that airport security guards could do with extensive sensitivity training. I’ve definitely heard my fair share of security horror stories which involve sexual misconduct, invasions of privacy, and verbal and physical violence. The way Petosky was treated was probably far more harsh and emotionally damaging than it should have been. To top it off, security demonstrated their utmost ignorance by demanding that Petosky return to the scanner “as a man or it would be a problem.” The whole encounter was, without a doubt, insensitive.

However, I’m cognizant that security was maintaining protocol — that is, to be suspicious of practically everything! The unfortunate truth is that airport security takes precautions based off of concrete, physical truths. In this case, the truth was that male and female anatomies look physically different from each other. Both sexes have their own distinct shape; there are visible, unchanging lumps, bulges, or curves in different places, and these are what scanners check for.

Gender, however, is a social construct. The typical traits that we associate with a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ are a cultural creation, and when a culturally constructed woman has a penis, it defies the stereotype and confuses the system.

Airport security takes precautions based off of concrete, physical truths.

Point blank, airports scanners don’t take into account the cultural traits that we humans associate with ourselves, they scan for the sex binary — the blatant differences in biology between males and females.

If a person of one sex arrives at an airport with the attributed traits of the opposite gender, security believes they could be hiding ‘weapons’ in the regions where the lumps and bumps of their sex exist. This is why Petosky’s genitalia was so confusing to security guards, who were suspicious of what might be hidden down there.

The guards do not insert their personal views regarding someone who is transgender. In fact, most of them surely don’t care, and some probably support and sympathize — as I do — with those who feel they were born in the wrong body.

Having said all this, the question looms: Should airports get with the times and create a body scanner that disregards the male or female anatomy? Would this make it fair and comfortable for everyone? Yes, absolutely. Though I have trouble picturing how this would make for thorough security checks, as the system would technically be attributing both male and female body parts to every individual. Though, unless everyone underwent a physical pat down, passengers would be able to sneak in undesirables.

Before the current system came into place, a previous scanner did full x-rays, providing explicit detail of a passenger’s body — but people complained it was too invasive. The new system, while more respectful of the body, is also overly specific and insists on stereotypical body types.

Perhaps scanners should include a ‘male to female,’ and a ‘female to male’ setting? Of course this idea would be bombarded with criticism regarding why this distinction should even matter. Trans people shouldn’t have to feel labelled or separated from the rest of society. I agree!  But in a world where biological sex is considered fixed, to scan based off the sex binary may be necessary for maintaining proper security.

I sincerely hope that security devises a system that thoroughly scans people while completely disregarding their sex, but until then I’m afraid airports will continue to be a hub of discomfort and embarrassment.