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TSA

Everyday Non-binary Challenges

Earlier this week, I was featured in an article where agender and non-binary people (not male or female) debunked myths about our identities. I got to share some the everyday challenges I face as a non-binary person in a binary-centric society. I want to use this week’s post to expand on some of these experiences.

TSA

Almost every time I go to the airport, I set off the body scanner and need to be pat down, even if I’m am in cotton from head to toe. The TSA’s policy is to have an officer of the same gender pat down the passenger. Usually after I step through the scanner, the female-looking officer reaches for me and I say, “I’m not a woman.” Then the male-looking officer reaches of me and I say, “I’m not a man.”

That’s usually when they look at each other with puzzled faces, telepathically trying to decide what to do next. Sometimes they call a supervisor. Sometimes they ask, “Who would you like to pat you down?” One TSA officer said, “You have to pick one,” and I retorted, “No, I don’t.”

For most flights, I wear my binder to get through security and then head to the gender-neutral bathroom to take it off before my flight. It’s not the most comfortable thing to wear for hours on a plane, and I tend to start overheating when I wear it for more than four hours.

Speaking of airports, why do we have to specify male or female when we buy a plane ticket? I called my airline and asked what a customer should do if they have a non-binary driver’s license. The representative said the TSA checks if your name and birthdate match your ticket. They don’t check your gender. I’m tempted to mark “male” the next time I buy a ticket and see what happens. I only know of one situation where a male was named “Ruth” and it’s a dragon, so it will probably be easy enough to tell TSA I picked the wrong gender if they notice the disparity between my ticket and my driver’s license.

“Ma’am”

I was raised with Star Trek, so I’ve always preferred “sir” over “ma’am.” In the last two years, I’ve become more aware that there is not a gender-neutral option for these terms. (I’ve given some thought to what that term should be but that’s a topic for a different post.)

I tend to get the most annoyed when I’m on the phone with customer service. They’re trying to be respectful by calling me “ma’am,” and it makes my skin crawl every time I hear it. My desire to get my needs me and finish the call as fast as possible is usually stronger than my desire to tell the representative that I’m non-binary. It’s not as if the company would know my gender the next time I call anyway, so I don’t bother correcting them. I just cringe and finish the call as quickly as I can.

In group settings, I’ve tried to train myself not to react when I hear someone say, “ma’am,” much like how someone who’s legally changed their name learns to tune out and not respond when someone uses their dead name. My perspective is, if they’re using “ma’am” they can’t mean me. Doing this has nearly had adverse consequences once, involving light rail security. (But that’s a different story.)

No Option for “Mx.”

The gender-neutral alternative to Mr. or Miss/Ms./Mrs. is Mx. (pronounced like “mix”). It’s in my email signature so people know what to use, but I’ve never seen “Mx.” on a form. I suspect a lot of people don’t know about it.

For the State Bar, I tried to change my first name in their listing from “Ruth” to “Mx. Ruth,” so when someone looked me up, it would say “Mx. Ruth Carter.” I got a call within minutes of making that change on my State Bar profile from a representative who understood what I was trying to do, but who said I couldn’t change my name on their website like that.

I get the same frustration when I have to fill out a form that asks for gender and they only have “male” and “female” options. I’d love to see “non-binary” as an option, but I’m satisfied with a option for “other.”  

I face challenges with being non-binary every day. Some are more draining than others. If I’m having a particularly rough day, I find this video validating: h

Frequently, I send it to people who don’t “get it” when someone says they’re non-binary. I appreciate that they say it’s ok to be confused.

If you have any questions about my experiences as a non-binary person, I’m happy to answer them, as long as you ask respectfully.

Being Non-Binary in a Binary World

One of the most challenging things about being non-binary is when I’m reminded that I live in a society that was not created for people like me.

Photo by Roger Griggs

Non-Binary Travel
There are everyday occurrences where there isn’t a gender neutral option. I cringe every time I hear someone call me “ma’am.” (Growing up on Star Trek, I’ve always preferred “sir.”) When I check into a hotel, the front desk clerk only has Mr. or Ms. to choose from in deciding how to address me. (If you don’t know me well, you don’t know that I have a doctorate degree.)

And let me tell you how much fun it is dealing with the TSA. I almost always set off the spinny-go-round scanner, usually on places where there’s no metal on my clothes. When I tell the female-identified TSA agent that I’m not a woman or a man, the supervisor has to get involved before I’m patted down and sent on my way.

Recently, one TSA supervisor asked which gender I was presenting as, and I honestly answered, “Neither.” (She was nice and politely asked me some questions as I put my sneakers back on about how to address someone who is non-binary. She said she’d never met a non-binary person before.) At another airport, a supervisor tried to tell me that I had to pick a gender, man or woman, for the purposes of the pat down, and I refused. At that same airport, the supervisor asked who I wanted to pat me down, and I said I wanted a non-binary person, or a gay person. They had neither, so I said, “Whomever is most comfortable doing it.”

Yes, I could avoid issues with the TSA by letting them think I’m female, but they need to remember that not everyone fits into their binary system. And I can handle the interaction, even though it’s stressful and exhausting.

I call this my ” gay mafia” picture.
Photo by Roger Griggs

Shopping for a Suit
I shrunk out of my suit years ago, but since I rarely have to wear it, I haven’t replaced it yet. Lately, I’ve wanted to replace it with a gray three-piece men’s suit – with real pockets in the pants and blazer. It’s hard to find a women’s suit that fits me with my muscular shoulders, long torso, and abnormally short limbs. (When I get petite length pants, I still need to get them shortened about 2 inches, when I’m wearing heels – and I’m 5’4”.) And besides that, I’m tired of blazers and pants that don’t have any functional pockets.

A major department store was having a sale, and their website showed that they had what I wanted. The clerk didn’t bat an eye that I wanted a men’s suit, but he apologetically said that he didn’t have anything that would fit me. He slipped a size 36S blazer on me, and he was right – the shoulders were too big. (With men’s suits, you fit the shoulders and tailor everything else.) They didn’t even have dress shirts I could wear. I have a 14-inch neck, but only need a 30-inch sleeve. The shortest length they carried was 32.

The clerk suggested I visit the boys’ department. He said I would probably wear a size 18 or 20, and he warned me that my shirt color options would be limited to blue, black, and white, and if I wanted a suit with a vest, I’d probably have to wait until Easter. The shirts and blazers in the boys’ department mostly fit, but they still didn’t feel right.

Thankfully, I have a friend who gets all his suits and dress shirts custom made by a tailor in Vegas. He said he’d give me their name. I hope he wasn’t lying when he said they weren’t that much more expensive than buying off the rack.