This post was brought to you by a reader in memory of Katharine Hepburn but NOT Spencer Tracy. The Toast’s previous coverage of trans* issues can be found here.
New Year’s Eve was the first gathering of all my mom’s siblings and their children in over ten years, to celebrate my grandma’s 90th anniversary and my grandparent’s 60th wedding anniversary. In addition to his love for ordering outdated cocktails then lambasting bartenders who don’t know how to make them, my grandpa also has a passion for maligning his children’s spouses until they all refuse to visit him. As a result of infrequent visits, this was the first time I would see the majority of my family’s maternal side since I transitioned. So at this party, I entered into a vortex wherein I was remembered as a ten-year-old tom-boy, and came out a twenty-year-old man.
I didn’t attend the party alone. My fiancée, M, and I were in from New York, along with our dog Laika. M had order from work to be back in New York promptly on January 1, 2014 (or else.) We would fly in, stay at a trucker motel, attend the family party, and skedaddle. Up until December 31, 2013, the plan had gone exceedingly well. My grandparents made toasts. My brothers drank a little too much. My parents danced. My uncle and his new girlfriend made out.
The ball dropped. After midnight, when it was time for me as the designated driver and the one who had to be at the airport by 8 AM to tell everyone it was time to go, I realized my wallet was lost. My wallet containing all of my and my partner’s money and identification.
Panic struck. Everyone began canvassing the house, the yard, the street. I learned that once my family is a little tipsy, they think they are the best search force in the country.
M called the airline, and after a thirty minute hold was told that we should show up as early as possible, bring any identifying documents, and prepare to be interviewed. She had her insurance card and a few other pieces of evidence, I had nothing. I began to freak out: they would have to pat me down, or worse. And before that, they would surely ask me questions. As I worked myself into a frenzy M weighed in: “Wear a polo shirt and be charming. We will make it on the plane.”
My dad drove us at 5:30 AM, allowing an extra two hours for whatever would happen. When we got to JetBlue’s check-in area, the attendant chuckled at me losing my wallet on New Year’s Eve, at which point M and I recited our line of the day: “Things got a little crazy at my grandma’s 90th birthday party.” The attendant cooed at our dog, neatly tucked in her airline-approved pet carrier, while writing “NO ID” in sharpie on our boarding passes. I said a silent prayer of thanksgiving that our vet had prescribed doggy Xanax for the flight; maybe Laika was our ticket in. We were on to phase two.
The security line moved briskly. When I told the TSA gatekeeper that neither of us had ID, he sighed, said “Really?” and called a supervisor. M and I were apologetic. They split us up—her insurance card, business card, and old credit card substantiated her identity. She took Laika, sleeping peacefully in her carrier, and followed an agent. The gatekeeper told me to wait: I would need an agent to question me.
I looked around, praying that magically there would be a queer person on staff. One agent, a bald gentleman of about 45 with slim wrists, lots of jewelry, and waxed eyebrows, was my top draft pick. In interactions like this, LGBTQ people are almost always my best bet. I can usually count on a middle-aged cisgender gay man telling me that he did drag in college, or a kind lesbian reassuring me that she used to wear exclusively men’s pants. They generally don’t seem to get what being trans means, but at least we are both part of the rainbow.
Straight cis people are always wild cards.
Agent V was about 5’0”. She wore knockoff Prada Baroque eyeglasses, no nail polish, a no-nonsense gold wedding band, and a chunky G-shock watch. Her face frowned naturally. She looked me up and down and said with practiced disinterest, “Please follow me to our questioning area.” I followed her, imagining that we looked like a St. Bernard following a miniature poodle. I suddenly missed Laika, the living proof of my decency.
I wasn’t sure where V was leading me. We were walking away from the security check area, and towards the food court. We passed by a two-story high Christmas tree covered in gold ornaments. I noticed her eyes hover on it for a few seconds, and made a mental note to check if she was wearing a crucifix. I also reminded myself to compliment one of her accessories when we arrived where we were going, if appropriate. When interacting with straight ciswomen, it is often in my best interest to read as gay, or at least as a guy who has a lot of sisters.
Agent V slowed her steps by the Burger King, and strolled up to a bench sandwiched between overgrown palm trees, too big for their terra cotta pots. I wondered if there was a suggestion box where I could request that they be repotted.
On the next bench over, a couple in their mid sixties was saying a tearful goodbye, punctuated by lingering kisses.
“Is this private enough for you to feel comfortable.” Her voice did not go up at the end, like it was a question.
“It’s private enough for me if it’s private enough for them.”
One second passed. “HA!” Her laughter was brief and cutting, “Ha. Yes. Trust me—we see much worse here.” Her tense posture slumped slightly. Her guard was down! Success!
“Ok, here is how this will work. Since you don’t have any identification,” she paused to raise her eyebrow at me, a friendly scolding, “We will have to ask you some questions. I will call my supervisor, who sits at a computer and runs the background check I will need to ask you some very personal questions, but my goal is to get you on your flight. I am trained not to breach your privacy, and my goal is to protect everyone’s safety, including yours, ok?” I agreed, and she dialed the secret number on her phone.
It started out normally: address, previous address, single or married, education, parent’s names, were they divorced, siblings, have I flown from Orlando International before. I volunteered everything I could think of, but to no avail.
She was clearly growing exasperated, all my information checked out. “For some reason,” she said while her supervisor paused to try and come up with other questions, “it’s like there is just no info on you.” For the next half hour, she more specific banal questions (mother’s mother’s name, cars that my parents own/have owned in the past 10 years) not knowing that I was concealing a fact that would probably make her job much easier.
I considered what I was obligated to say, if and when the question arose. I never changed my last name or social security number, only my first name. So if she asked if I had any “aliases,” replying no wouldn’t be a lie. If she asked if I had ever changed
chanced my last name, the answer was no. If she asked if I had ever changed my name ever, I would have to say yes.
Eventually, we got there: “Have you ever had any nicknames?”
Well, nickname is a loose word. “How do you mean?” I asked.
“Do people know you by another name?”
Well, not since I legally changed it and cut everyone out of my life who wouldn’t call me Liam. Thus, “No.”
“Ok,” she paused. The supervisor’s voice buzzed in the phone. “Really?” Agent V raised both eyebrows, “Ok,” she turned away from me into the phone and whispered tersely “but I am telling you he is fine.” She frowned at her paper, where she’d been taking notes.
“Ok, so, we can not find you. At all. So if you still want to fly, you will have to get checked by the Orlando PD. They have a field office, and they have access to police records. So they can check you more thoroughly. I’ll escort you there now, but you might want to let the person you’re travelling with know you will be a while.”
Our flight was scheduled to leave in an hour and a half. She stood, and I opened my phone to a few texts from M, that she was cleared through security and waiting at the gate. Time for gamble. If I came out, it would at least be to this TSA agent who I liked rather than some mystery cops. I stood to follow her.
“Excuse me, Agent, there’s one thing that might help with the background check. I’m transgender.” She cocked her head at me, “As in, I used to be a lady, and I am a dude now. I’m sorry for not volunteering that, but I have been harassed at times when people found out, so I wanted to avoid coming out if I could, but I did not mean to limit your investigation and potentially endanger other passengers. I’m sorry, I should have just told you.”
“Augh, I knew it had to be something!” She stopped herself just short of giving me a little punch in the arm. Her face beamed. “Yes, you should have just told me! Let me call my supervisor.” She whipped out her phone, and walked over to the palm tree. After speaking, I saw her nod her head grimly. “Well, we as the TSA have officially closed our investigation of you, so the Orlando PD has been notified. But, I am having them meet us here. Since I was the lead officer, I’ll be here with you. They can be a little pushy, so it’s better over here than on their turf. And I’ll stay with you for questioning.”
“I really appreciate you helping me out, I’m sorry if I wasted any of your time,” I told her, sincerely.
She pashawed, gave a little wave gesture, “It’s not that busy this morning. And please. No trouble. You know,” she leaned in conspiratorially, “My brother is gay. And it was so tough. Not for me, for my family. My mother didn’t talk to him for eight months. But then she met his boyfriend, Enrique, and it is so funny, because he and Enrique look like twins, and she said ‘Ay! I have two beautiful sons!’ That was last Christmas. This Christmas, Enrique was over at our house eating cookies,” Bingo, I thought. “But hey—you look great! I would have never guessed, God bless! And the lady you are with?”
I nodded, “We got engaged a few months ago,” and she giggled.
“That is just great. Good for you! We will get you on that plane, I’m sure. And you’ll find that at Orlando International, the TSA is veeeeery diverse. We have everything, all working together. Dominican, Jewish, lesbian, Muslim, Puerto Rican. Everything. It’s best that way, much more fun in the workplace too. And for the passengers, there is always someone who gets you, who knows how it is.”
At that moment, I complimented her glasses, and really meant it. They suited her face perfectly.
Read more Coming Out as Trans to the TSA at The Toast.