When Zev Al-Walid walks through an airport security scanner, he more or less willingly parts with his belt, his shoes and his pocket change, just like any other traveler. But by the time Walid - a man who was designated female at birth and later transitioned - is ready to reclaim his personal items, there's often an extra hurdle blocking the path to his gate.
Walid, who travels frequently to the United States and countries around the world from his home in Western Europe, remembers a particularly bad trip through a US airport's backscatter scanner machine.
"I wasn't really privy to what the picture looked like or anything," said Walid. "I could just hear the guy, in front of me, talking on the radio, presumably to the person looking at the image. And he was like, 'Yeah. No. He's right here. I'm telling you, he's a man. I'm looking right at him.'"
"I felt physically ill after that," said Walid.
Since when did travelers' gender become the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) business? Since at least September of 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an advisory warning against "Al-Qaeda's continued efforts to plan multiple attacks against the US and US interests overseas." The advisory included a list of potential terrorism targets, a mention of recent arrests of unnamed terror suspects and this warning: "Male bombers may dress as females in order to discourage scrutiny."
Maybe there was verifiable intelligence about male terrorists who like to slip women's wear over their explosive devices. Or maybe the wardens of the security state read one too many spy novels. But either way, bringing gender into the security arena has major consequences.
"My experiences shifted somewhat after 9/11," Walid told Truthout, "but I'd say they shifted even more a few years after 9/11, when I started to get read not just as a brown person, but as a brown man." Walid, who is Muslim, said that, before he transitioned, "My faith wasn't visible, as I didn't wear a headscarf, so there was nothing to set off alarm bells."
"The whole, 'You are a terrorist,' kind of thing didn't really play into the equation, because I don't think women are seen that way as easily."
Since the DHS advisory, at least two other factors have brought gender further into the national security equation. One is Secure Flight, the program begun in 2009 requiring passengers to disclose their birth date and gender to airlines to be compared with their government-issued photo ID, purportedly in order to reduce the number of false matches to names on the federal watch list.
The other is the widespread use of body scanners.
Because gender has become one of the first markers in the technology-centric race for body-based data - known as "biometrics" in surveillance-speak - transgender and gender non-conforming people have been some of the first and most directly affected.
In an investigation begun during our "Surveillance in the Homeland" series on civil liberties in post-9/11 America, Truthout uncovered how their experiences illustrate what's at stake when the human body becomes a data point in the war on terror.
This story is about people, not their anatomy, except that in the case of airport scanners, this last vestige of individual privacy is on the table. Transgender people's experiences vary as widely as the human mind and body, but trans communities have mapped out some common ground in language, experience and even documents such as the Transgender Law Center's (TLC) fact sheet, Trans 101. The title might be considered a nod to the ad hoc teaching gig some trans people are thrust into simply by virtue of their identities - Is that your real name? Did you have a sex change? Why should I let you onto this flight? - and for a two-page crash course, it goes a long way in dispelling gendered assumptions that underlie security measures like body scanners and Secure Flight.
According to TLC, "Transgender people (very broadly conceived) are those of us whose gender identity and/or expression that does not or is perceived to not match stereotypical gender norms associated with our assigned gender at birth.... Some [transgender people] take hormones but have no surgery or vice versa. Some take low-doses of hormones or go on and off. For some trans people, altering genitalia is important. For others, it is not."
So, what does this have to do with the war on terror?