Science for Dealing With The TSA

| Mar 28, 2016
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The Transportation Security Administration just announced that they intend to increase the use of scanners for personal body screening. Transgender people have had increasing problems with TSA for the past five years or so, since the introduction of the scanners and the “Behavioral Detection Program” (BDP). The situation is about to get worse. So here is what I do to get through TSA inspections, but you need to learn a little science first.

The memoir of a camofluer from WWI.

The memoir of a camofluer from WWI.

I know a little about the science behind the scanners. They are essentially radars that transmit radio energy in a so-called millimeter wave band that can penetrate clothing and receive the energy back to form a very detailed image. I know a little about how radars operate, having worked for 18 years at an institute in Michigan that pioneered most of the imaging radar technologies in use today. I did not engineer them but I did do lots of experiments about how much information could be extracted from the images. I also became a talented camoufleur. A camoufleur is a person who uses camouflage to deny or deceive opposing sensor systems. For example, paramilitary camoufleurs during World War II put out fake tanks and trucks and used netting and foliage to hide the real ones.

The TSA scanners are technically illegal because they were introduced without the required public comment period for all Federal rules but the TSA continues to use them. That is a legal, not a scientific story which we won’t tell here.

The most important thing you need to know about the scanner is that a TSA agent pushes either a pink or blue button, depending on whether they think you are a male or a female. Of course, we know that sex cannot accurately be determined by outward gender presentation but that is the task they are given. The reason for this is that the scanner uses pattern recognition software to alert the agents and this software needs to know the sex of the passenger to do its job. This is because the scanner is so good that no one is allowed to see or record the actual images. Until they had this software, TSA agents were able to see these images and that resulted in some sexual harassment of good-looking passengers. Because terrorists have been discovered with explosives smuggled in their genital area, the scanner pays particular attention to this area. In females, the software detects genital enlargement such as transman packing which it thinks might be explosives and generally ignores such things as breasts and even underwire bras. It also picks up breast binders. In males, the software looks for enlargement of the genital area which might be explosives and enlargement of other areas such as the breasts. The exact criteria constitute the “secret sauce” of the scanner.

The science, if there is any, about the Behavioral Detection Program is murky at best. Both the UK and the Israelis rely on behavioral observation and questioning of passengers but they employ former intelligence agents who actually have some interrogation expertise which most TSA agents do not have. The TSA developed a list of behaviors that it thought would indicate that a person was likely to be a terrorist and therefore should be questioned in more detail. Things like pupil dilation, wearing inappropriate clothing and fidgeting which, of course, are natural things for transgender people to do because they fear the TSA inspections. I got clocked by this program when I was putting a “mailbag” purse through TSA carryon screening. A TSA officer remarked that it was inappropriate for a male to carry such a bag. To which I replied, “Haven’t you heard about man-bags? We have so many things to carry like cell phones and passport cases that even men are now carrying bags.” He backed off. (Ironically, the bag I had was one given to me by my daughter who did not know at the time that I was transgender.) I had thought about my remarks in advance but not specifically for the TSA. The TSA says that they no longer use the BDP but I am sure that the list of behaviors is in the back of their minds. The important thing about the BDP is not to loudly protest TSA inspection procedures, particularly use of the scanner or frisking that the TSA do. It is a featured behavior on the list.

They've got their eye on you...

They’ve got their eyes on you…

You have the right to forgo the scanner and receive a “pat-down” instead. But you will immediately come under suspicion. Giving you a “pat-down” is a euphemism for frisking you. The TSA technique is somewhat modified from other agencies to use the backs and not the front of their hands. I don’t see much difference other than the back of the hand technique seems to take longer and I am not sure it is as effective. You are entitled to a private “pat-down with a friend but that will raise suspicion even more. You are entitled to select the sex of the officer who pats you down but they will not tell you that, you have to know it. You are also entitled to wear breast forms, breast binders and genital packing which will cause a scanner alarm. The TSA agents seem unfamiliar with these rules, so it is best to avoid invoking them until you have to.

If you flunk the scanner test you will receive a “pat-down.” They typically will start the “pat-down” within inches of the scanner exit, guided by a fuzzed up image produced by the scanner. In my case, I sometimes get clocked for having breasts but I am used to it now. Every time I go through security, I try to sneak a peak at the image display. Since I am a lesbian, I don’t mind a male officer doing the “pat-down” although I do enjoy a female agent doing it. I was once frisked in the Frankfurt airport by a woman and enjoyed it thoroughly. Then I realized that she was frisking both men and women on my plane. Equal opportunity frisker.

So here is what I recommend in terms of dealing with the TSA. First, allow plenty of time to catch your flight. Being late will encourage some of the behaviors on the BDP list. If you are late, now is the time to use your Zen Warrior relaxation technique which you learned in yoga, martial arts or from a shrink. The BDP list contains indications of nervousness which you want to avoid showing.

Second, dress down and present in the gender behavior category that you want to portray. If you want to present in a masculine way, let your beard grow out. A white skin from recent shaving is on the BDP list, so don’t display that either. If you want to present in a feminine way, wear a skirt or a chiffon blouse, but don’t overdo the hair and makeup. Remember that it takes two feminine stimuli to make up for a single masculine stimulus you put out. Because I have been clocked twice before because of my breasts, I have taken to wearing a somewhat tight t-shirt underneath my blouse but not a binder. The TSA agents see older males with gynecomastia, hormonal breast enlargement, all the time so suspicions are not aroused because I look like an older male, just with longer grey hair in a ponytail.

I usually try to pass as a male, so I wear pants, big briefs and the biggest belt buckle on my jeans that I have. I make a big deal out of taking off my belt, if required to give them a “male-show.” I put my bra, panties, jewelry, perfume and makeup in my carry on bag, laying them flat to be sure that they can be easily recognized by the x-ray technician. The technicians are supposed to be only looking for guns and explosives but they actually start by recognizing familiar objects to rule them out. (I have watched and listened while going through security as they learn from their on-the-job teachers.) I follow the TSA rules regarding toiletries and cram makeup and perfume items into a plastic sandwich bag. If asked why I have these items, I always say that I packed them to take them to my wife. (A red flag goes up for TSA if you say that someone else packed a bag, so never admit that). Terrorists and criminals have been known to get naive tourists to carry bags for them. I pack breast forms and dilators in my checked luggage because they may arouse suspicion because of their unusual shapes. If my luggage gets lost, I have a friend who can overnight backup items to me if I need them but I usually can get along without them on a short trip. If all else fails, department stores usually have breast forms.

I recommend that transmen follow similar presentation procedures. You can probably include breast binders in your carry-ons. (You can always claim that you have broken ribs). I have broken mine three times and wore something very similar to a binder until they healed. But I recommend putting packers in checked luggage because their shape on x-ray is distinctive. I recommend wearing boxers because they show up nicely on the scanner

As soon as I get through security, I head for the nearest family rest room to change. Most airports follow international architectural guidelines specifying family rest rooms. U.S. guidelines for buildings do not require them.

Third, when you go into the scanner, be sure that you have nothing in your pockets. Even a boarding pass or drivers license reflects the radar energy enough to sound an alarm. I have been clocked for a boarding pass. You don’t want to get clocked by the scanner for anything, even the most innocent object because it will raise suspicion and you will be subject to a “pat-down.” I always put my license and boarding pass in my carry-ons that are going through the x-ray machine or in the handy dishes they provide. Put your cell phone in there too and resist the temptation to take pictures while in the screening area. TSA agents don’t like second-guessing of their performances.

Fourth, if you are clocked by the scanner, listen intently to what the agents say to you. You will have trouble listening because of your own surprise and fear response. And again, drag out your Zen Warrior relaxation response.

Fifth. It is best not to say anything to the agents, if possible. If they say something that is publicly embarrassing to you, just try to get a name from their name tag so you can report them. Don’t ask their name, they won’t tell you. Under no circumstances should you raise your voice, even if they do. Realize that they yell to one another to communicate your status and their decision that they need a particular sex agent for a “pat-down.” What they say is almost unintelligible to me.

Sixth. If they put you in a Plexiglas “penalty box,” it just means they are waiting for someone to do the “pat-down.” The agents have been known to “forget” people in the box, whether from incompetence or malice. Do not give them any reason to make their job harder. Just relax. If you think you are in there too long, get a name from a nametag. If you got to the airport early, you have allowed extra time for such delays.

Seventh. Once through security, walk but do not run to the benches reserved for putting on shoes. Then walk to the nearest family restroom to change and get collected.

Eighth. TSA has been known to do secondary searches at the gate before passengers board. Fortunately, they take some time to get set up. As soon as you see them setting up, it is time to head back to a family restroom and repack. They usually do not have scanners at the gate, so they are looking for metallic objects with their hand-held metal detectors. Get all of the metal off your body and into your carry-ons.

Ninth. Do not drink to excess while at the gate, even though you might want to celebrate successfully getting through TSA screening. While the TSA may not clock you for this, the airlines and airport police will do it. Airlines do not have to board anyone they think is inebriated to excess.

Tenth. Report any problems you had with the TSA with the location, time and names, if you have them. There are TSA forms for this online. There is also an app for this for your phone, courtesy of the Sikh Coalition. Most of the Sikhs are not transgender, of course, but they have frequent problems with the TSA because of their dress. The Sikhs and NCTE also have handy summaries of your rights.

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Category: Transgender Opinion


About the Author ()

Dana Jennett Bevan holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a Bachelors degree from Dartmouth College both in experimental psychology. She is the author of The Transsexual Scientist which combines biology with autobiography as she came to learn about transgenderism throughout her life. Her second book The Psychobiology of Transsexualism and Transgenderism is a comprehensive analysis of TSTG research and was published in 2014 by Praeger under the pen name Thomas E. Bevan. Her third book Being Transgender was released by Praeger in November 2016. She can be reached at [email protected]

Comments (2)

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  1. Milesa_phar Milesa_phar says:

    Great article????. While I will be dressed as male, your ideas are excellent to avoid hazards in any gender. I’m going to Taipei to visit my high school buddy also on vacation from his home in Bangkok. Short trip – April 5-13. Be well Milesa

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