Monday, November 22, 2010

"The TSA: fondling fat men’s balls since 2010," or "I got felt up by a guy with a community college security degree, and all I got was this lousy blog topic"

In 1980, my father decided that he needed a new wife…or at least one who wasn’t my mother. In 1982, she reciprocated by deciding that she needed a new locale in which to live…or at least one that wasn’t Flint, Michigan. In classic ex-spouse form, she wanted to live with at least one state between her and her new ex-husband. Since she had custody, and wanted to bring my brother and I on her career adventure, my father wasn’t elated at the thought of his children leaving the state. Did I mention that he was an experienced family law attorney? Court theatrics ensued. After a year of legal wrangling (seriously, I fear that my sole contribution to humanity—aside from two masters theses and a doctoral dissertation that no one will read—is being “Child A” in their precedent-setting custody decision, available for anyone interested in Michigan family law to see), she won the right to take my brother out of the state and set her sights on Florida. I’ve been a frequent flyer since. Christmas break, spring break, summer break, and the occasional family trips, I had the flight routine down pat. By the time I was fifteen, I was eschewing the peppermint-striped marks of shame put on unaccompanied flyers, as I was well accustomed to getting around airports, and found that having a flight attendant in tow was so pre-teen.

My choice to go to college in Tallahassee only complicated things—as I now had to fly to see both parents: my father in Flint, and my mother in south Florida. When I lived in Orlando, family visits and flights to fannish gatherings kept me in the air frequently. I remember that I could wake up an hour and a half before a flight, shower, dress, drive to MCO, pass through security, and be at the gate before the first boarding call.

No "reach around" lane?
Then September 11th happened. Flying became on Orwellian exercise in search, seizure, and paranoia. First, we just had to endure strangers rifling and scanning our luggage and carryons. Then, we were taking our shoes off for scanners. Later, in one of the greatest scams in aviation, carry on fluids were all but banned, as toiletries had to be shrunken to three ounce bottles and packaged in sealable bags. Bottled beverages were outright banned. S.C. Johnson and Son (the makers of Ziploc products) and airport convenience store operators rejoiced at the guaranteed stream of new income. What was once an exercise in elegance (and one of the last chances for Mad Men cosplay outside of themed season premiere parties) had been turned into a parade of sweatsuits and flip flopped passengers, to make the security screening process as painless, easy, and least humiliating as possible.

Never one to be seen as slacking in a manufactured war on terror and cutting edge performance theater, the TSA decided that after a gentleman decided to strap explosives to his underwear (write your own pun here, folks. I’m tacky and brash at times, but even I have my limits on taste), we needed more saving from ourselves, and the mass deployment of the AIT was born. Now, before I embarked on my floundering academic career, I worked as a metrology technician (think: quality control) in an Orlando area microelectronics plant. I know what an AIT does. I spent many an evening staring at an AIT screen as I dreamed about getting my graduate degrees and teaching. This is a machine that can do surface scans on the micron level—which is what we used it for in the metrology line, inspecting the integrity of the wafers as they went through the manufacturing process. So it should only make sense that the TSA would use an AIT to scan passengers for things underneath clothing…right? C-4 undies had nowhere to hide!

…Then the TSA released its first (heavily airbrushed) images of passenger scans from the AIT. Robin Williams used to remark that football was a game where men wore pants so tight that the audience could tell what religions the players were. The AIT took that level of invasiveness off the gridiron and put it in the airport terminals. In May 2010, the news broke that a fight broke out among TSA employees after a scan furthered the cultural theory that most men go into the security professions as a means of compensating for a small penis, and jokes were made at the scanned agents’ expense. The AIT has no friends or allies—everyone’s genitals are equal in its radiation eyes…or if not equal, at least equally accessed.

Yes, there are questionable health concerns about the AIT, but let’s be honest—as soon as news broke that the AIT could give a Bob Guccione-esque glimpse of travelers’ bodies beneath their clothing, health concerns became a mask for the real issue. “Don’t look at my junk!” became the battlecry on the Internet.

“We won’t look at your junk,” replied the TSA, “we’ll just feel it up…sort of.” Within weeks of the new scanners’ arrivals, the TSA announced the alternative: the “enhanced patdown.” Essentially, objectors (conscientious or not) could opt to be taken to a separate area, where a same-sex TSA agent essentially would run gloved hands over the passenger’s body…all over it. Touching. Lots of touching. We’re talking about touching that usually involves dolls and sympathetic-voiced prosecuting attorneys. I guess that for me, the first irony with this solution is that the government won’t allow me to marry a man I love, but they’ll pay another one to feel me up in the name of national security? The US government is now a homoerotic pimp, wearing blue sweater vests with captains bars on the shoulders instead of the more traditional purple velvet and leopard print trim? Does Maggie Gallagher know about this? Soon after the TSA’s announced compromise, the public’s new Internet-driven battlecry had an even newer sibling: “Don’t touch my junk.”

…And I had a flight that was going to happen, right as this issue was reaching critical mass in the news media. Grassroots protestors in the blogosphere were promoting November 24 as “opt out” day—a plan to choke TSA screeners in the patdown lanes by presenting a mass-push of bodies as a way of protesting both the AIT and it’s Bob Packwoodesque alternative.

Now I’m not afraid of residual radiation. I worked next to several ion implanters for three years, and even had to go back into the access bays to do safety inspections on them. Microelectronics manufacturing involves all sorts of fun things like chemicals, radiation, and office politics on a level that makes a day at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce look like a Boy Scout picnic, so a little halflife toot from the AIT wasn’t a big concern for me. I’m also not afraid of bearing all to the world, much less a few TSA agents in their secluded room near the scanning bay. I’ve done life modeling (i.e. modeling wearing just a smile) for friends who want to draw forms that aren’t chiseled and height-weight proportionate. I’ve also done some….art modeling (isn’t that what Vanessa Williams called it in 1984? Maybe there’s hope for my fame aspirations after all. I mean, a Grammy, stint on Ugly Betty, and now Desperate Housewives can’t be that punitive for exposing one’s body in the name of art and titillating strangers…can it?) earlier in my life. Somewhere out there, people can pay $7.95 to see what the TSA would be seeing for free. Hell, if I know you well enough, I may even model again just to rattle the cages of people who like to squeal “euuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuw, fat guys!” Seriously, I’m not ashamed of my body—no matter how badly the media and diet industry wants me to be of it.

For me, the AIT is the symptom of a larger issue. I love my mother. I mean, it’s either love her in spite of the past, or go into decades of therapy just to be told that I need to love her in spite of the past by someone with fewer letters after their name than I have. On my current $8 an hour lifestyle, I’m forgoing the huge therapy bills and just jumping to the logical conclusions. But that having been said, my mother was overprotective to the point of making a Milennials’ helicopter parent blush. She almost didn’t take me to see Star Wars (the original one…not those crappy prequels) because she heard that Ben Kenobi got decapitated and didn’t want me seeing it on the screen. Imagine that mentality, repeated in various contexts until I was in my mid-thirties.

When I see the TSA’s AIT plan, I see that same sort of overprotective parenting in play. No, I’m not talking about the sort of “nanny state” drivel that you see frequently vilified in libertarian and teabagger blogs. There’s common sense, and there’s over-reacting. As Americans, we’re still in a cultural state of shock after 9-11, and we’re still prone to overreactions. We’re Americans. Overreacting to things is as in line with our values as Mom, baseball, apple pie, and forced Imperialism in the hopes of cheap petroleum. In post 9-11 America, the overreactions are just taken to a Spinal Tappish eleven. Go big or go home, right? We don’t even question it anymore when the government introduces new policies…unless it runs the risk of somehow violating our genitals.

So I sat in front of my laptop monitor and tablet screen in the days before my flight, reading the ruckus about the new AIT-patdown combo. I saw the webpages propagating and the petitions surging across Facebook and Twitter. And I thought about my flight. Isn’t it the duty of every good child to resist overprotective parenting and push some boundaries? The last time I was fondled against my will was when I had my pre fat camp physical at thirteen, and I heard the phrase that makes all men cringe: “please drop your pants, turn your head, and cough when I ask you to.” As I figure, if the TSA wants to have a close, intimate relationship with me (albeit a brief one), why not just cut out the boundaries of the AIT and give them one?


I’ve been wearing a kilt for seven months now. For years, I thought about buying one and secretly envied friends who had and wore them. Then, to prepare friends and family for my eventual midlife crisis (start small and go bigger, I argue. The kilt today, new career at forty, sports car at forty-five), I broke down and bought two. By the end of the summer, pants and shorts had been strictly relegated to workplace fare. My kilts were my daily uniform. I’d worn my kilt on a flight two months earlier. Friends were starting to get used to the sight of me wearing a man-skirt (their words, not mine), and I was getting used to being out in them. Why let a new government policy change things? After all, if I had to wear pants or shorts, didn’t that mean that the terrorists won? Then again, isn’t the turning of that question upon the violation of American civil rights in the last nine years a cliché now?

Mystery date, are you ready for your mystery date?
My friends were divided. Most thought I wouldn’t do it. Others dared me to do it. The people in first group still don’t know me very well, what can I say? On November 18, 2010, at about 8:15am, I walked into Raleigh-Durham International, ready to strike a blow in the name of civil rights…or at least kilt enthusiasts everywhere. Friends were bracing to watch the news that night and see my image plastered across Glenn Beck’s wipeboard. I performed the old security theater: my iPad in one bin, Macbook Pro in another, boots, jacket, flat cap, belt, and cane in a third bin, messenger bag in a fourth bin, and TSA approved Ziploc bag containing my travel sized toiletries in a fifth. My rollerboard bag made the caboose of my little public safety train. The TSA agent pointed to the ominous machine (which looks more like the “Shake Shack” that Danny and Sandy serenade one another upon at the end of Grease….come on, could it be that bad? If I broke out in chorus of “You’re the One That I Want,” would I get arrested, or just get strange looks from the TSA agents?), and I took a deep breath. Showtime…literally.

The agent rolled his eyes before I could finish telling him that I was opting out of the AIT. He put the microphone of his radio to his mouth and muttered into it. Meanwhile, something in my rollerboard had the attention of the guy at the scanner. Like I said, American’s go big or go home. I not only had a dream date with a patter-downer, but I got to have a luggage inspection with one of an online security school’s finest.

Officer Gill met me at the patdown area—a glass-enclosed area to the left of the AIT. There were the usual chairs and mat with the paired footprints in the middle of them. I dutifully assumed the position as he introduced himself. I wondered if I was getting a corsage? Candy? Maybe just a little dirty talk first? Gill was a kid—he couldn’t have been more than twenty three years old. He sheepishly and nervously admitted that he was new to the TSA and that I was his first patdown. Poor bastard, losing his virginity to a middle aged fat man in a kilt.

The enhanced patdown is very much like a consensual rape. The screener asks before touching each body part with the back of his hand. “I’m going to put my hand between your beltline and belly, is that okay?” Obviously, the only correct answer here was yes. I could have said no, but that meant that I’d be hitch hiking to Chicago…if I wasn’t arrested and charged with a fine. So Officer Gill starts with my backside, then chest and belly. After that, I stretched my arms out, and we finished the upper body. He then took a courageous breath and steeled his reserve, asking me to step forward with my left foot. This was it…

Gen X’ers, remember the old commercials for Milton Bradley’s Operation game? In the game, players take turns using metal tongs to remove plastic pieces from an electrified board with the shape of a man on it. If the tongs touch metal surrounding the piece’s cutout, the board makes a loud buzzing noise and the patient’s nose glows with a red light. “Don’t touch the sides!” warns one of the kids in the commercial. That’s the enhanced patdown, essentially.

With blue latex gloves on, the backside of Gill’s hand caressed my ankles and calf. The hand moved up my knee and vanished along my inner thigh, under the kilt...

Buddafingahs!

Had I a light bulb for a nose, it would have glowed. I almost thought about even making a buzzing noise, but since I had the attention of several TSA officers, plus the one waiting to rifle my rollerboard, I stifled my smirk. I’d officially been felt up by Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, Officer Gill (again folks, he was a young’un) probably had no idea that most men in kilts are almost always wearing it regimental. His was a lesson that ended in a combination of metaphorical tears and probable gay panic. No sooner had the back of his hand hit the crease of my thigh (and he realized what his palm was cradling by default), his hand dropped to my ankle with near-light speed. He paused a moment. I could see the storm of trauma churning in his eyes, having accidentally felt up a fat man. He took a breath and rose. Meanwhile, I stood on my left leg and extended my right. Officer Gill knelt down, and with surgical precision, drew his hand up my inner thigh and stopped just clear of the boundary of inappropriateness. If anything, he learned a lesson that day. Ideally, I would hope that it would be the appropriate proportions of a male’s hips and groin region, but I suspect that it had more to do with not pulling the short straw when the fat dude in the kilt requests not to be thrown in the AIT.

Officer Gill rose. With all the awkwardness of any other moment of mutually lost virginity, he thanked me for my time and told me that I was free to put my accessories back on. I realized that I wasn’t going to get a phone number or email address, but couldn’t I at least get a little help getting myself back together? Not even a forced and awkward “see you later?” I mean, even guys at glory holes have a certain code of honor, and wasn’t that what I’d just been subject to? Once I had my boots and belt on, I went to the station where my rollerbag was waiting. When the officer learned what the curious, thick metal ring that had his attention was (of course, he also had it in his hand at the time), there were more blushes. What can I say?

Ready for the flight home

So I get to my convention in Chicago, where friends were waiting to hear about the TSA confrontation that several had been reading about on Twitter in the previous days. “Operation” and “don’t touch my junk” jokes abounded. Three days later, I repacked my gear and stepped into O’Hare airport, kilt again snug around my belly. I was ready and braced this time. Once I set the safety train up (and explained to the agents that my cane is lacquered wood…and not a human bone) on the X-ray scanner, I turned to the agent and said the magic phrase: “I’m opting out of the AIT scan. I’m requesting an enhanced patdown.”

He cocked his eyes at me and told me that he wasn’t going to select me for the AIT anyhow. There was almost a nyah nyeah nyah tone in his voice as he visually scanned my kilt once more. I was pointed to the metal detector right next to the AIT.

I blinked. A metal detector next to the AIT? People going through the metal detector and not the AIT? People going through the AIT at the TSA’s choice and discretion? A guy with an online education diploma in “security” gets to decide who gets the metal detector and who gets the AIT…or the enhanced patdown? Didn’t we get over this in 2002, when they finally stopped “randomly” choosing bearded men for extra security procedures? How early-millennial…

Frosted glass, for our security and their pleasure...
Moreover, if the TSA is randomly using the AIT, why even have it in the first place? Wasn’t President Obama just telling us about a need to be more secure, when he justified the new program late last week? Wasn’t the point of the AIT to scan every passenger, to ensure that explosive britches aren’t finding their ways on to our commercial aircraft? Isn’t the point of an effective security plan to be consistent in it’s deployment? Since we’ve had shoe bombers, and then underwear bombers, I’m left wondering what the next bomber will be. The tampon bomber? The suppository bomber? What if the hypothetical internal-bomb-bomber gets the nod from the TSA agent to simply pass through the metal detectors and bypass the AIT? What’s the point? Why are we playing this game?

Americans have always had a flair for drama and the theatrics. We need only look at the 2000 presidential election if anyone doubts this. For almost ten years now, we’ve elevated airline security to the point of high theater—a show designed to scare would-be terrorists away. But I’m wondering if the threat of the AIT is a threat made for actual security or more for the implied gay panic of either having one’s genitals imaged or exposed to the gloved hands of a TSA agent? In the months following the September 11th attacks, the right wing, spurred on by urban legends of the past, gleefully suggested tactics like rubbing ammunition with pork or defiling the graves of suspected Muslim terrorists as a means to deter would be terrorists with threats of eternal damnation. Since Islam’s homophobia is legendarily notorious, maybe that’s the real threat of the AIT: if a same-sex infidel stranger sees or fondles your junk, no happy afterlife for you. Denied boardings, the threat of arrest, and $10,000 fines are all secondary threats, right?

In the mean time, based on my experience at O’Hare, it seems that the sight of a fat man in a kilt seems to be the current “get out of AIT” card—at least if the screener is one of the people who may be pulling straws to do the potential pat down.

Oh, and Officer Gill….call me? We did have an intimate moment after all…

EDIT, 11-23-10: I've had a few inquiries about my kilt. It's an Amerikilt. They're more fairly priced than the brand-name utility kilt ($98 vs $245), and this company makes them up to 64 inches, so a majority of men can get them in their size. I paid $98 for a 50-inch kilt, with no fat tax for the larger sizing. Also, the sporran is an awesome alternative to the lack of pockets.

...and they look great against those blue latex gloves on the TSA screeners. ;)

30 comments:

  1. you are awesome! Loved reading this.

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  2. You have inspired my sweetie to go purchase a canvas kilt.

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  3. All men should wear kilts to the airport! Thanks for a great read!

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  4. This is wonderful; I'm laughing out loud.

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  5. Man. That totally beats my plan of using metallic body paint to write something snarky on my torso for the scan machines. *pout*

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  6. Very much enjoyed the post, man. Thanks for sharing your solution. ;)

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  7. Sweet gods man, this was an awesome write-up. At times I was laughing so hard I had to wipe the tears from my eyes to continue. My wife's been trying to get my to switch to kilts for years. I just may have to reconsider after reading this. Especially seeing that the Survival Utilikilt holds 20 bottles when not going through TSA check-points.

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  8. OK so what exactly was the "curious, thick metal ring" that was in your bag?

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  9. LMFAO!!! I'm reading this at strozier library (at that school in tallahassee) laughing so hard people are staring!!! You sir are a god!

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  10. Hilarious - and yet sadly depressing. My husband wore his dress kilt for our courthouse wedding, but fortunately for all involved, he only had to pass thru the standard metal detector.

    Thanks for the Amerikilt tip, that's a great price.

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  11. With apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson...

    In Sensorium

    With mighty wands and scans we watch,
    And trust begloved fondling paw.
    Our nature, dread in truth and law,
    With daring, peek upon your crotch.


    See also: Junk Drawers

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  12. Your blog entry was linked to on Ars Technica. I came from there.
    To me, this entry makes you sounds like a world class jerk.
    You intentionally skip the backscatter machine, then sarcastically muse about getting candy and such, while admitting that the TSA agent is the not leering creep described in so many diatribes, but rather a 23 year old who is simply doing a job and doesn't have any prurient interest in patting down a fat guy, nor is he an Orwellian mini-dictator who wants to control you. He's just doing a job. If anyone has a sadistic streak it's you. A fat guy who wore a kilt and insisted that someone search him just to see that person squirm when they discovered he wasn't wearing any underwear. That's pretty sick.
    To top it off, you describe this with the phrase "The enhanced patdown is very much like a consensual rape." This is an meaningless phrase. The basis of rape is non-consent. You use it just for the shock value of the word 'rape'. Again you seem to get your jollies off of imagining other people squirm. That's messed up. It doesn't promote your political case. It just makes him look like a jerk.

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  13. I've worn a kilt through RDU many times, although I have to admit I'm normally not commando. Most recently, before the body scan brouhaha, I found the easiest solution was to just take the kilt off and put it through the x-ray machine and walk through the metal detector in my underwear (Superman boxers, specially purchased no less). Apart from a few funny looks from other passengers, I didn't receive any comments.
    On the other hand, returning to RDU through ORD, I was given a stern talking to about how that wasn't appropriate behaviour. Although when I pointed out that it's no different than wearing lycra work-out attire, that didn't go down so well.

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  14. Best laugh I've had all day - thanks. And, FWIW, Chrisfs, you are an idiot. The problem with some people is that they do not recognize humor when they see it, so they are barred from enjoying it. Full marks for writing this hilarious post SP!

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  15. Thank you very much for this. You are awesome for turning the tables on TSA and making the correct placement of blame - it darn well should be the person initiating unwelcome sexual contact who feels humiliated at the conclusion of the process!

    I have been tormented about this - I usually fly several times per month and I'm extremely sensitive and modest about my body. I'm not willing to let a man ogle me through my clothes, nor will I allow a stranger to fondle my labia and squeeze and twist my breasts. It's so offensive and abhorrent that I keep wondering what planet I woke up on where people somehow think this is okay. I haven't been sleeping. I have rearranged my whole life, cancelled five roundtrip flights and many more itineraries that will never be booked, and felt really put upon and violated at even the thought of what these thugs want to do to me.

    But maybe you are showing me a third way - to be neither victim nor martyr but victor! Maybe I can find a way to make the TSA look as ridiculous, ass-backward, perverted, and useless as this organization aspires to be.

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  16. Heh. You wear a kilt AND you use a Macintosh. I suspect that there will be mascara in your future.

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  17. Bad luck for the newbie that you were his first patdown assignment. But TSA officers quickly learn how to deal with assholes, fat or otherwise, though the vast majority of the flying public are decent people.

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  18. @blogagog and he totes around a "curious, thick metal ring"...

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  19. Outstanding post.....Well done, very well done!

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  20. Excellent post. I enlisted in the Army as an infantryman after 9-11, so I obviously believe in keeping my country safe, but if we generate enough obtrusiveness, and deny and infringe enough rights, the terrorists have already won.

    I'm sorry you are less equal in the eyes of the government because you love the "wrong" sex.

    John

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  21. Oh. Emm. Gee.

    The gasping shrieks of laughter started with the post title and only dwindled occasionally through the rest of the post.

    Well played, sir!

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  22. i too found this thru Ars Technica. i found it hilarious and well written.

    i am a full-time kilt wearer as well (even at work). i haven't had the joy of flying since the latest post-post-9-11 fears and policies.

    not sure which option i would take though. honestly i wouldn't care either way. i don't really plan on giving it much thought.

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  23. My friend, that is the best read I have had in a long, long time. As a kiltie myself, I applaud you.
    To the juerk who felt like they needed to call you a jerk----buzz off, you are obviously a well-programmed sheeple of a person.

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  24. Wonderful! LOL. I love a man in a kilt too...tempted to do this myself.

    'Didn’t we get over this in 2002, when they finally stopped “randomly” choosing bearded men for extra security procedures? How early-millennial… '

    Yeah I got randomly 'profiled' EVERY TIME I flew until then. I used to ask 'is this random?' and they'd earnestly say yes and I'd look around at all the middle eastern/indian/pakistani and bearded men in our little separate huddle and go 'really?'.

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  25. There is a mind behind those dark-rimmed glasses. You provided a humorous and historic perspective on what most people would stumble over with self-righteous affront. Thank you for sharing.

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