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Opinion: The Dignity Cost of Being Trans (or How I Failed as an Advocate)

Trans activist Hannah Simpson poses for a branded photo kiosk at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport in August 2016. Hannah Simpson

It was just another normal day in the airport security line. This time I was departing Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. As a transgender woman and frequent traveler, I always opt-out of the new-fangled body scanners in favor of the pat-down. Always.

It has been well documented that these millimeter wave and backscatter x-rays machines collect a detailed image of one's body through clothing. Software limits the readout to a generic human form with blocks over any suspected anomalous regions.

Behind Schiphol's admittedly gorgeous, futuristic new conveyer belts for belongings came the row of full-body scanners. I politely explained to the attendant, in English, the de facto lingua franca of aviation, that I wished to opt out and receive a pat-down instead.

For transgender travelers, whether males, females or non-binary presenting, our anatomy runs the risk of tripping these alarms. Regions where our bodies, by nature or by placement of genital prosthetics—referred to "packing"—might differ from our cisgender counterparts, can be quickly exposed. While someone discovering a penis on me is highly unlikely at this point, as an activist and public figure, I am acutely aware that this still concerns many among my community.

I was asked to walk through the machine, which was not activated, and directed to place my feet upon blue footprint stickers. A female attendant approached me; they always provide a gender-matched assistant for physical searches. So far, everything was normal…

"Why are you choosing not to be scanned?" the security agent asked me. "I am opting out. I do not need to state a reason," I politely responded, knowing my rights.

"But we can ask you," she countered, and repeated her question. Do I stick to my guns, risking being seen as uncooperative and escalating the situation, or do I answer her question? As usual when passing through such a screening, I had a plane to catch. I opted for the latter.

"I am transgender and am aware these machines can identify that uncomfortably." The attendant appeared to understand, and continued with a pertinent question given my statement. "So you are a woman now? Can I check you?" I consented and received my pat-down, which was efficient and respectful. She turned away to hand off a chemical test strip rubbed on her gloves.

A photo of trans activist Hannah Simpson's backpack taken in August 2016. Just for fun, she ripped the "FER" off a Southwest Airlines "TRANSFER" tag and travels with it everywhere. Hannah Simpson

While it processed, and before I was released, she proceeded to ask me, "How long have you been transgender?" "I'm not comfortable answering that question." This repeated 2-3 times. "But really, one year, two years?" she suggested, as if I had missed her intent.

"Three years." I made up a number. Where are we starting from? Hormones, living full-time as a female, or the date my passport was updated? The answer, much like the question, was totally irrelevant to security's sole task of verifying that I pose no risk to an airplane. And yet, as with revealing my trans status in the first place, I relented to infringement upon my rights for the sole purpose of expediting passage to the gate.

The unfortunate truth is that, as I began this story, this was just another normal day at the airport for a young trans passenger. A few extra invasive questions is par for the course—an expectation rather than exception. In a matter of seconds we must weigh giving in this time against getting pulled for extra screening or even denied boarding.

I collected my bags and approached the nearest agent observing the lines, asking to whom I might file a complaint. She identified herself as a team leader. I explained my situation, yet again necessitating disclosure of my trans status. Calmly yet firmly, I emphasized my humiliation and outrage at being asked unneeded invasive questions.

The Schiphol team leader acknowledged that I neither needed to discuss my transition timeline nor explain my opting out in the first place, but the damage was done. She immediately called over the agent in question and called her out. Both offered me sincere apologies for my experience. I still requested their names and filed a written complaint later.

This was Amsterdam Airport, the Monday after three long weeks of EuroPride 2016. I was hardly the first or last transgender traveler they'd encounter.

Trans activist Hannah Simpson, waving the transgender pride flag, takes a selfie from aboard the World Religion Boat during Amsterdam's EuroPride 2016 Canal Parade. Hannah Simpson

This woman who inspected me, sporting Ellen-esque hair and asymmetric earrings, looked as stereotypically queer as they come. Failure as an activist to me is also feeling—accurately or not—that asserting myself came at the expense of someone else who might also fit within our LGBTQ family; perhaps someone used to her own mistreatment. Being gay or lesbian does not guarantee you get trans issues, nor is personal curiosity an excuse for treading beyond your job description.

Four days later I was once again departing from Amsterdam through the same checkpoint. I opted-out of the body scanner. A different female agent directed me around the full-body scanners toward the blue footprints. I was given a respectful pat-down and directed onward. No questions, all business.

Given two distinct outcomes, one of these two agents was doing her job wrong. Sacrificing my own dignity and negating in seconds the effort I put into realizing my true gender, simply to be sure I reach a flight, only increases the chance that interrogations, or something worse, remain part of my traveling reality and others'.

Liberal media pundit Bill Maher calls trans rights a "boutique" issue, missing an opportunity to bolster public awareness against a conservative agenda that denies trans identities exist, except perhaps as a threat to society. Fun fact: Maher and I graduated from the same New Jersey high school district. I spoke out in support of trans students, leading to my own ignorant headlines, because people are in danger right now.

Legislation and education could eliminate the dignity cost of being transgender, whether at airports, hospitals, or even police stations. Until there is one set of protocols for all, which those who serve us are informed of and held to, everybody loses.

Hannah Simpson is a transgender advocate, engineer, marathoner, traveler and unabashed nerd. Follow her on Twitter @hannsimp and her blog at hannahsimpson.com.

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