So it’s transgender day of visibility and I wanted to write something about the last time I felt really visible as a trans woman.
This happened a couple of days ago. This was while I was travelling back from Australia to New Zealand, after having spent a lovely couple of weeks with my girlfriend – who is also trans – hanging out, seeing some bands play, catching up.
When I’m with my girlfriend, I feel she sees me for who I am. I don’t have to be cautious about how people will understand what I’m saying through the lens of my gender. She truly accepts me as the gender that I am, and so I can share parts of myself that otherwise would open me to scrutiny – things like my sexuality, silly jokes, and simple thoughts I have about my existence as a trans woman.
But this isn’t the way that I normally experience visibility.
Crossing borders between countries is always a stressful action. The ever-increasing militarisation and restriction of borders across the globe continues to inflict exclusionary and hegemonic violence by enforcing imperialist political agendas on regular people.
I am an anxious person, and struggle with social interaction, especially when I do not understand exactly what is expected of me. This can make things as small as booking a haircut quite stressful to me. When faced with officials from the Australian Border Force, who have the power to imprison me indefinitely, or simply make me miss my flight, this anxiety can be quite high already.
I don’t know if it’s this anxiety or paranoia, but I feel as though I am often singled out for extra attention as I pass through customs. Not to the nearly the same extent as people of colour suffer, but I do think people notice something about me, my transness, my anxiety and paranoia, and decide I am suspicious.
This is the visibility that I am used to.
This trip through the border was no exception. As I placed my belongings in a tray to be scanned, and was left clutching my passport as if a security blanket, shoeless and nervous, I was beckoned over to the body scanners.
Body scanners in Australia use radio waves – which bounce off skin and metal, and pierce clothes – to render an image of your body. The idea is that they will make items hidden beneath your clothing visible. Automated target recognition then paints yellow indicators over the image, to show where “suspicious” objects may have been detected.
If these objects are detected, you will not be cleared to fly until a pat-down has followed up, investigating the suspicious areas beneath your clothes.
I stepped into the cylinder of the scanner, and raised my arms above my head, following the mandated procedure to provide a clear image.
My body, rendered visible to the machine’s logic, was detected as suspicious. I stepped out of the machine to be greeted by an image of highlighting my crotch as a “suspicious area.”
The security officer monitoring the machine asked me if I had anything in my pockets. I felt like crying. I knew had nothing in my pockets. I know how my body is seen as abnormal and wrong. I knew exactly what was happening.
My transness, rendered visible from beneath my clothes, painted me as a target. According to the logic of the airport’s security theatre, my genitals needed investigation.
I wanted to cry, but again I know that if my sadness was visible it would register as hysterical or suspicious according to the security protocols and manners required of me. Trying not to shake, trying not to let my anxiety and upset become visible, I tried to lightheartedly suggest setting the machine to “male” and seeing if I was still suspicious.
The woman at the machine accepted that, and I stepped back into the machine. When I stepped out again, the panic fully set in. Australia has a “no opt-out” policy for body scanners. There was going to be no way of escaping this. The machine had not targeted my genitalia this time, but had rendered my breasts as a target for investigation.
I had a brief discussion with the security forces, indicating my body, pointing out that the detected “objects” were parts of my body.
The security officer asked me if I wanted to be patted down. I was trying hard to still keeping my voice steady.
Images of breaking down crying, my emotion getting me carried off to gosh-knows-what ordeal went through my head. It kept me calm on the surface, and deepened the wide panic inside.
I told them I would prefer not to be patted down. They told me I would not be cleared to fly unless I accepted. They asked if I wanted a woman to do it. Most of the sexual assaults I’ve experienced have been by women. They asked if I wanted a private room. Most of the sexual assaults I’ve experienced have been in a private room.
My body, my private parts, had been rendered visible, and they needed to investigate.
I made it on to my flight.
I spent a couple of hours by the gate before the flight. Teary-eyed, crying, trying not to be too obvious in my stricken state, not wanting to call any more official attention to me.
I’m home now, safe, tired, not too physically traumatised by the event, but I still can’t stop crying when I think about it for more than a minute.
The way the airport made my body visible, labelled it a target to be investigated. My self, the body I can only change with expensive surgeries – which are only really available overseas. The idea that my body is suspicious.
My body, made visible, is unsafe.