Patted Down

When barbara and I went to Ottawa last month, to visit my mom, we had to fly, it being the only way to get there. Airport security has always been a bit tense for me, though picture I.D. has saved me from questions like: “Who’s identification is this and where did you get it?” or comments like: “It is illegal to use another person’s identification.” It’s better since, when push comes to shove, my I.D. does match how I look. But we never get to that point without several rounds of “SIR” which I feel I have to correct because it’s airport security and I try not to look like I’m trying to trick anybody.

Since having three joint replacements, it has become more complicated because if you set that bleeper off, and emptying your pockets doesn’t fix it, you have to be frisked by a guard with a “wand,” a thinnish electronic billy club. There were two guards, a woman and a man, and the man stepped forward and told me to raise my arms out from my body, he would need to “pat me down.” I repeated, for the third time, that I was a woman and wanted to be patted down by a woman. They stood frozen, looking at one another and kind of furtively glancing at me.

Only when barbara strode into the tableau saying, “This is my partner and she is a WOMAN,” not loudly really but very firm, that the man guard turned away with a shrug, smirking with relief, and went on to his next traveler pat down.

The woman guard was not happy and obviously not convinced. She approached me with very hostile “Fine then, have it your way,” kind of resolve. She pressed her billy-club over and over my bleeping joints—-hip… knees…back to the hip…back to the knees and then suddenly, right up between my legs and hard into my crotch. We can all only guess what she was thinking to find there. (snort).

I felt that scalding sting of humiliation, but I didn’t protest, just stayed standing there with my arms still stretched out wide in a bizarre caricature of “welcome with open arms.” Then she started on my upper body and again pressing hard and repeatedly over my chest and breasts with her club and hand…like she can’t believe they really are breasts. Finally she finished.

She never met my eye and didn’t speak till she pointed to a nearby chair and said, “Take your shoes off.” She left me there and went away with them. I waited obediently till barbara found my shoes over on the x-ray conveyor belt and brought them to me.

We bolted out of there as fast as we could. I was shaken way beyond my usual crabby relief to be done with that particular joy of travel.

I felt humiliated, and I felt like a failure for feeling humiliated. I’m supposed to have a handle on that stuff now. It’s not supposed to bother me beyond annoyance or impatience, and all with a real feeling of it being “their” problem, not mine. And, of course, with my wit still intact. I have a lot of support and very active acceptance in my life. At these moments I feel shamed at having let that support down.

But this episode has kept coming back to me. And always with a ping of failure which I realize is the humiliation still hanging on.

I realize, too, that there is a certain level of their disbelief that makes me feel that I AM a freak. It’s like a line gets crossed and at least I have to wonder what is so unbelievable about me being a woman? What is it these people see?

Sometimes I think that my own sensibilities on the subject might cause me to over-read the “You couldn’t be a woman” message, but on this one, barbara got the same hit from the whole thing. As barbara put it, it was like the guard never really believed it and felt she was being “had” in having to pat me down. Really, the kind of humiliation that a scenario like that would evoke, would account for her abusive level of anger. All brought on by her own trans phobia, thinking I was really a man who had suddenly decided that HE was a woman,”like they do nowadays,” and trying to pass. Though I must say I don’t see my style as one that most would chose to that end. But it is maybe proof of the increase in trans consciousness: she thought I was trans and in the old days she would have just seen me as a more unspecified, free-floating weirdo.

I prefer the stories where I score the perfect “bon mot,” and leave my challenger feeling sheepish or embarrassed, and me looking witty and completely together about who I am and how I look. And just when I think I’m impervious and won’t get stung, it jumps up and bites me in the ass.

gay lesbian butch transgender LGBT Queer gender Not that I really thought that would happen, the being impervious part. But writing the stories in Mistaken Identity and having them published and having this blog to add chapters whenever have given me a whole new power over the potential insults and a whole new joie de vivre in the flaunt of it. I almost look forward to potential theater for good “copy”; I hone my witty comebacks. So much better than a state of semi-dread that I might need a washroom, not a pretty picture for a woman of my middle, post-menopausal age.

It has been great to get this off my chest and I really do feel quite differently about the whole thing. So my thanks to you all for listening. I love having a blog, really.

I love the total bonus visibility provides, letting others who feel/look/act likewise find me if they want, and then of course, I have found them.

Still sane coverI remember how doing the Still Sane project about being locked up for being a lesbian opened up a whole new world to me. Before “coming out” as a survivor, I had no idea how many dykes had been abused by psychiatry and it turned out to be very empowering to find out.


9 thoughts on “Patted Down

  1. Sherry McCarnan

    I enjoyed reading your blog. Sorry to hear that this shit is still happening to you. Me? I got fatter and that helped. Not that I recommend that as a solution as being fatter has its own challenges. Take care. Sherry

  2. Pingback: Your Students Should Blog– | Working in Adult Literacy

  3. Timothy Corvidae

    I appreciate you sharing this account so much–especially your honesty about feeling like you should be impervious to this stuff, and would rather be recounting a story in which you win the day with some witty bon mot. As a trans guy who transitioned in my 30s and has lived–and been patted down–in many combinations of gender presentation and identity, the experiences you write of here and, more importantly their psychic impact, are very familiar.
    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how these experiences pile up and threaten to intimidate or exhaust me into performing a ‘better act’ of conformity. Well, to be honest, they sometimes succeed for periods of time. However we do identify, it is really important for all of us whose identities are contested publicly to keep sharing these stories with each other.
    So thank you.
    (And thanks to Barbara for bringing Sheila’s writing to the attention of the trans academics list. THAT is a great act of allyhood, I think.)

    1. Sheila Gilhooly

      Thank you Timothy !! your response to my story was so ‘kindred’ and complimentary I felt all “in it together” with all of us ‘contested identities’ ,what a lovely phrase and what a way with words you have . A ‘better act of conformity’ really says it all .Love to hear any stories you might have, speaking of ‘good words ‘

      1. Timothy Corvidae

        I’d love to share some stories. . . it might be another minute before I get them written out for sharing. Reading your blog has inspired me to do so, though. It reminded me of how valuable it is to me–and therefore likely is for many others–to hear kindred stories. I’m a birth mother of my kiddos, and I’ve got a lot of stories and reflections about living in the world as a dad who gave birth to his kids. One of these days soon I’ll get it down in print. . . meanwhile, glad to make a connection here with you. Thanks!

  4. Diana Smith

    Hi Sheila. How relentless all this is. The resolve you have developed (whether you wanted to or not) is amazing. Can I quote the last paragraph tomorrow, in the talk?

  5. barbara findlay

    Speaking as the ally in the piece, I have a lingering guilt that I didn’t do more/better in this situation to prevent having Sheila end up with a load of humiliation.
    It’s tricky. On the one hand, I want to intervene whenever someone makes the gender mistake, because people ‘hear’ the information that Sheila is a woman differently if that information comes from me. To them I look like the real thing. And I speak calmly, assertively, expecting no resistance – a tone of voice that almost always works to deflect whatever is happening and redirect it.
    But on the other hand, airport authorities have enough power to make things seriously unpleasant. In that regard they are somewhere around security guards, not all the way up to police. With police I would be absolutely determined to straighten things out so to speak before they went too far, but being as careful as I can be not to call their judgement into account.
    So…I didn’t object to the search as it was happening. Maybe I should have. What do you think – whether you are the one likely to get that treatment, or you are the one who is the ally?


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