The (not-so) Subtleties of Facing Discrimination in a Very Public Space

Trans PeopleLorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times' "Ask A Trans Woman" Columnist.
Photo: David Meehan
Lorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times' "Ask A Transwoman" Columnist.  Photo: David Meehan

Lorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times’ “Ask A Transwoman” Columnist.
Photo: David Meehan

By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—

As I’m sitting here writing these words, I am angry. I tried to write something fun this month. I wanted to write something fun, something that wasn’t a call to arms or a dissection of tragedy. I started out as a comic after all. However, sometimes things happen that I cannot, and perhaps should not, just let pass.

Two days ago I was traveling from a friend’s house in Providence to my present home in Littleton by commuter rail via Boston. While in town, I needed to stop by an office of our fine federal government to deal with one of the many little form changes that seem to go hand in hand with a transgender identity.

Upon finding and entering the building, I saw that there was a standard security set-up, with an X-ray machine and walk-through metal detector. It’s a routine I’m used to from lots of travel. Unfortunately, I was traveling with the overstuffed backpack I had brought for several days away from home.

When asked by the officer staffing the X-ray belt if I had any electronics, I replied that I did and apologized for the delay as I diligently dug through my bag to remove the sundry and assorted devices that are part of a modern life. I put my backpack on the belt and the officer pushed through the tray with my purse and the electronics. [pullquote]At this point, though I complied and kept my voice as quiet and calm as I was able, I refused to answer any further questions, all of which were coupled with a misgendering. I simply kept repeating, “Please call me by my proper pronouns.”[/pullquote]

Once through the metal detector, the officer operating the X-ray machine told me he saw a flask and asked if I could take it out for him. I happily complied, not having remembered it was there before I went through.

The officer indicated it was a problem, and I politely asked if I could check it with them. I travel frequently and often have cause to encounter security checkpoints. I know the routine and am always helpful, calm and polite.

I told the security officer the flask contained “fairly nice Irish whiskey.” He opened it and easily verified the smell.

However, as I was asking if I could check the flask, a Homeland Security Officer briskly approached the checkpoint, took the flask and began walking away. He told me they could not check the flask and he would have to confiscate it.

I informed him the flask had been given to me by my very recently deceased grandmother. He told me he could not return it and added that since he considered the flask an “open container” he would have to confiscate it. I repeated my entreaty to return the flask and the fact that it was tremendously precious to me as a keepsake.

I was shaking badly and pretty freaked out. My grandmother passed just a couple of weeks ago and we were incredibly close.

This exchange went back and forth as the Homeland Security Officer, who later told me his name upon request, kept referring to me by various male pronouns. Not that it needs noting, but anyone who has met me will know my gender identity is not especially hard to establish.

I was literally reduced to begging the Homeland Security Officer to return the flask, even if it meant simply putting it back in my bag and leaving quietly. While this was going on, I also kept requesting that the Homeland Security Officer refer to me as “Ma’am” instead of “Sir” and that he use my proper pronouns.

The Homeland Security Officer refused both requests and told me I needed to not raise my voice to him. Due to my size and several decades of theater training, my voice is quite powerful, though I at no point raised it to an inappropriate level or spoke disrespectfully to either the security officers or the Homeland Security Officer.

He kept referring to me by male pronouns and as a crowd was gathering behind me in line at the checkpoint, he told me to gather my belongings and follow him. I was physically shaking and visibly humiliated by the treatment I was receiving and the large crowd in front of which it was happening.

The Homeland Security Officer simply kept repeating that I gather my belongings and follow him. Growing angrier, he continued to refer to me as “Sir,” completely missing the point of an “honorific.”

Finally able to pull my belongings together, I followed as instructed, quite sure I was about to be detained. With the crowd watching and this fully decked out and intimidating-looking Homeland Security Officer still misgendering me despite my continued requests that he use my proper pronouns, I was led outside.

There, he told me to listen to him and not raise my voice or he would arrest me. At this point, though I complied and kept my voice as quiet and calm as I was able, I refused to answer any further questions, all of which were coupled with a misgendering. I simply kept repeating, “Please call me by my proper pronouns.”

Eventually, the Homeland Security Officer told me to give him my ID. I promptly handed him my driver’s license, which indicates my gender as female. He did not apologize nor correct himself, but simply stopped using any pronouns or honorifics. At this point, I continued cooperating by answering his questions. [pullquote]This did not necessarily start out as being about my gender identity, but it quickly became that. We who are trans suffer these humiliations all the time. Sometimes they are writ large, like my abusive encounter with Homeland Security. [/pullquote]

After several minutes of lecturing me in front of the passing onlookers outside, he told me he would return the flask, though he would have to pour out the contents. Being a good Irish woman, I dared to mention that I thought this was wasteful given the quality of the whiskey, but saw I had no other course of action than to comply with all requests and withhold all objections or otherwise risk my freedom.

After a further moment of lecture, the Homeland Security Officer handed me the flask and told me to leave. He added as an afterthought that I was barred for 24 hours, essentially preventing me from completing the business I had come to Boston to do in the first place. I was shaking, angry and humiliated. I felt entirely powerless.

My point in sharing this story is that discrimination is not always as neat and clear-cut as we activists and politicians would like to think it is. It’s messy.

This did not necessarily start out as being about my gender identity, but it quickly became that. We who are trans suffer these humiliations all the time. Sometimes they are writ large, like my abusive encounter with Homeland Security. More often, they occur in countless little ways, so frequently we don’t even think to mention them.

We deserve the same dignity and respect as anyone else. It’s time to speak up and tell our stories until people begin to listen.

Slainte!

*Lorelei Erisis is an activist, adventurer and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at: loreleiersis@gmail.com.

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