On traveling while different

I left for the trip of my life last month, packing up my life from graduate school, driving home to my parents’, and boarding a plane to New York. All in 18 hours. I fly a lot, and airport security has always been a pain in my ass, but something changed about a month ago. Suddenly my pants were a problem.

As I stepped through the scanner, the TSA agent looked at the screen, raised her eyebrows, and turned to me. “You need to go through the scanner again, honey, cuz nobody wants this pat down.”

I rolled my eyes, and stepped back into the scanner.

“And pull up your pants!” The agent hollered at me.

Blushing from embarrassment, a wave of anxiety washed over me as I stepped back out of the scanner. The line of people behind me had grown longer, their angry faces staring at me as TSA decided my fate. I’d been patted down before due to the way my pants fit around my legs, usually around my ankles. The groin pat downs were new, though. This marked the sixth time, and third trip in a row, that I had a pat down around my groin. The first time, no one really asked, and suddenly I had hands on my legs.

Normally, I probably wouldn’t care. TSA kind of sucks, and I rarely get through a scanner without having my hair or ankles checked. It’s the message behind being rescanned that bothers me. My groin area is highlighted because of the way my pants fit. When I step through the scanner, I am coded as female, which triggers expectations about the way my clothes should fit. I don’t wear women’s clothes, and my pants, which are baggier through the groin area, apparently warrants the response of difference and potential danger. The anxiety of rescanning and having a groin pat down due to the pants I wear, however, doesn’t just anger me — it wears on me.

Expressing myself authentically has rarely been an easy thing. I struggled to embrace my masculine expression after I left elementary school. Once it was no longer socially acceptable for me to wear baggy jeans and muscle tees, my pants got a little tighter and my hair a little longer. My desire to fit in caused me to internalize shame around how I wanted to express myself in tandem with my sexuality. It wasn’t until four years after I came out that I found the courage to put on my first pair of men’s jeans.

Every time I step in that TSA scanner, the shame resurfaces. I am different, and am reminded of that each time a TSA agent scans my body before sending me back through, their eyes seemingly placing weights on every inch of me.

Traveling is a vulnerable and dangerous act for many people of many gender identities and expressions. As a gender non-conforming woman who uses they/them pronouns, I spent two years building a community of friends and colleagues who understood how I identified, respected those identities, and worked to honor them every day. Building community is hard work, and it requires energy, time, and patience. Now that my life involves being in a constant state of travel, I do not have that bubble anywhere.

I’m used to being mis-pronouned on occasion. But I am not used to only hearing my correct pronouns every once in a while. There is a consistent erasure of who I am and how I identify, reinforced by othering experiences, such as the TSA marking my pants as a problem because of the way they fit. It is the raised eyebrow as people put together the fact that I wear masculine clothing, and the eye roll as I gently correct the use of my pronouns. It is the cute smile with the tilt of the head that says, “Oh that tie is so cute,” as if I played dress up in my father’s closet.

Please. My father wears too much paisley for me to raid his closet.

While in New York, I decided to replace my cologne. I ran out two weeks prior, and I missed having my scent. After ducking into a shop on 28th, I asked to sample the Burberry cologne they had.

“Are you sure you want to?” the man working asked. “You’ll smell like a man.”

I smiled slowly, and silently wondered what this man thought about the purple tie I wore. “It’s ok.”

I picked my favorite of the two, and asked for it to be rung up. He turned to me as he typed on the register. “Is this for you?”

I didn’t know how to respond. Of course it was for me, but I wasn’t entirely sure if it was safe to admit that. This wasn’t my city; these weren’t my people. I just wanted some cheap Burberry so I could feel like myself again. It was a blanket of comfort in a sea of uncertainty. But this man didn’t see me or the meaning behind my expression, he just experienced confusion as he struggled to place me into a box.

“Yeah, it’s for me.”

I could have said that I bought it for my father, or my brother, or my future brother-in-law, but I chose to be defiant and tell the truth. Truth can be an act of resistance. There is a moment in most conversations where I recognize the face of the person as they code me as different. Then, I wonder if I will still be safe. My first semester of graduate school, I would sit in my car and crank “La Vie Boheme” and “Born This Way” to make myself feel better. Sometimes, I went for a drive under the expansive sky of the Midwest, enjoying the space and freedom to be myself. It’s cliche, I know.

Being in constant motion means that the most comfort can come from not moving at all, which is something I’m not used to. I generally like big skies and open space. I am vulnerable, however, in this these spaces, something which was easier to cope with when I had a bit of a bubble where I could recharge. Until I find it again, I’ll just crank the tunes a little bit louder.

Header image credit: Pinterest


Katie Barnes (they/them/their) is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer. While at St. Olaf College studying History and (oddly) Russian (among other things), Katie fell in love with politics, and doing the hard work in the hard places. A retired fanfiction writer, Katie now actually enjoys writing with their name attached. Katie actually loves cornfields, and thinks there is nothing better than a summer night's drive through the Indiana countryside. They love basketball and are a huge fan of the UConn women's team. When not fighting the good fight, you can usually find Katie watching sports, writing, or reading a good book.

Katie Barnes is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer.

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