New Year’s Eve was the first gathering of all my mom’s siblings and their children in over ten years, to celebrate my grandma’s 90th anniversary and my grandparent’s 60th wedding anniversary. In addition to his love for ordering outdated cocktails then lambasting bartenders who don’t know how to make them, my grandpa also has a passion for maligning his children’s spouses until they all refuse to visit him. As a result of infrequent visits, this was the first time I would see the majority of my family’s maternal side since I transitioned. So at this party, I entered into a vortex wherein I was remembered as a ten-year-old tom-boy, and came out a twenty-year-old man.
I didn’t attend the party alone. My fiancée, M, and I were in from New York, along with our dog Laika. M had order from work to be back in New York promptly on January 1, 2014 (or else.) We would fly in, stay at a trucker motel, attend the family party, and skedaddle. Up until December 31, 2013, the plan had gone exceedingly well. My grandparents made toasts. My brothers drank a little too much. My parents danced. My uncle and his new girlfriend made out.
The ball dropped. After midnight, when it was time for me as the designated driver and the one who had to be at the airport by 8 AM to tell everyone it was time to go, I realized my wallet was lost. My wallet containing all of my and my partner’s money and identification.
Panic struck. Everyone began canvassing the house, the yard, the street. I learned that once my family is a little tipsy, they think they are the best search force in the country.
M called the airline, and after a thirty minute hold was told that we should show up as early as possible, bring any identifying documents, and prepare to be interviewed. She had her insurance card and a few other pieces of evidence, I had nothing. I began to freak out: they would have to pat me down, or worse. And before that, they would surely ask me questions. As I worked myself into a frenzy M weighed in: “Wear a polo shirt and be charming. We will make it on the plane.”
My dad drove us at 5:30 AM, allowing an extra two hours for whatever would happen. When we got to JetBlue’s check-in area, the attendant chuckled at me losing my wallet on New Year’s Eve, at which point M and I recited our line of the day: “Things got a little crazy at my grandma’s 90th birthday party.” The attendant cooed at our dog, neatly tucked in her airline-approved pet carrier, while writing “NO ID” in sharpie on our boarding passes. I said a silent prayer of thanksgiving that our vet had prescribed doggy Xanax for the flight; maybe Laika was our ticket in. We were on to phase two.
The security line moved briskly. When I told the TSA gatekeeper that neither of us had ID, he sighed, said “Really?” and called a supervisor. M and I were apologetic. They split us up—her insurance card, business card, and old credit card substantiated her identity. She took Laika, sleeping peacefully in her carrier, and followed an agent. The gatekeeper told me to wait: I would need an agent to question me.
I looked around, praying that magically there would be a queer person on staff. One agent, a bald gentleman of about 45 with slim wrists, lots of jewelry, and waxed eyebrows, was my top draft pick. In interactions like this, LGBTQ people are almost always my best bet. I can usually count on a middle-aged cisgender gay man telling me that he did drag in college, or a kind lesbian reassuring me that she used to wear exclusively men’s pants. They generally don’t seem to get what being trans means, but at least we are both part of the rainbow.
Straight cis people are always wild cards.
Agent V was about 5’0”. She wore knockoff Prada Baroque eyeglasses, no nail polish, a no-nonsense gold wedding band, and a chunky G-shock watch. Her face frowned naturally. She looked me up and down and said with practiced disinterest, “Please follow me to our questioning area.” I followed her, imagining that we looked like a St. Bernard following a miniature poodle. I suddenly missed Laika, the living proof of my decency.
I wasn’t sure where V was leading me. We were walking away from the security check area, and towards the food court. We passed by a two-story high Christmas tree covered in gold ornaments. I noticed her eyes hover on it for a few seconds, and made a mental note to check if she was wearing a crucifix. I also reminded myself to compliment one of her accessories when we arrived where we were going, if appropriate. When interacting with straight ciswomen, it is often in my best interest to read as gay, or at least as a guy who has a lot of sisters.
Agent V slowed her steps by the Burger King, and strolled up to a bench sandwiched between overgrown palm trees, too big for their terra cotta pots. I wondered if there was a suggestion box where I could request that they be repotted.
On the next bench over, a couple in their mid sixties was saying a tearful goodbye, punctuated by lingering kisses.
“Is this private enough for you to feel comfortable.” Her voice did not go up at the end, like it was a question.
“It’s private enough for me if it’s private enough for them.”
One second passed. “HA!” Her laughter was brief and cutting, “Ha. Yes. Trust me—we see much worse here.” Her tense posture slumped slightly. Her guard was down! Success!
“Ok, here is how this will work. Since you don’t have any identification,” she paused to raise her eyebrow at me, a friendly scolding, “We will have to ask you some questions. I will call my supervisor, who sits at a computer and runs the background check I will need to ask you some very personal questions, but my goal is to get you on your flight. I am trained not to breach your privacy, and my goal is to protect everyone’s safety, including yours, ok?” I agreed, and she dialed the secret number on her phone.
It started out normally: address, previous address, single or married, education, parent’s names, were they divorced, siblings, have I flown from Orlando International before. I volunteered everything I could think of, but to no avail.
She was clearly growing exasperated, all my information checked out. “For some reason,” she said while her supervisor paused to try and come up with other questions, “it’s like there is just no info on you.” For the next half hour, she more specific banal questions (mother’s mother’s name, cars that my parents own/have owned in the past 10 years) not knowing that I was concealing a fact that would probably make her job much easier.
I considered what I was obligated to say, if and when the question arose. I never changed my last name or social security number, only my first name. So if she asked if I had any “aliases,” replying no wouldn’t be a lie. If she asked if I had ever changed my last name, the answer was no. If she asked if I had ever changed my name ever, I would have to say yes.
Eventually, we got there: “Have you ever had any nicknames?”
Well, nickname is a loose word. “How do you mean?” I asked.
“Do people know you by another name?”
Well, not since I legally changed it and cut everyone out of my life who wouldn’t call me Liam. Thus, “No.”
“Ok,” she paused. The supervisor’s voice buzzed in the phone. “Really?” Agent V raised both eyebrows, “Ok,” she turned away from me into the phone and whispered tersely “but I am telling you he is fine.” She frowned at her paper, where she’d been taking notes.
“Ok, so, we can not find you. At all. So if you still want to fly, you will have to get checked by the Orlando PD. They have a field office, and they have access to police records. So they can check you more thoroughly. I’ll escort you there now, but you might want to let the person you’re travelling with know you will be a while.”
Our flight was scheduled to leave in an hour and a half. She stood, and I opened my phone to a few texts from M, that she was cleared through security and waiting at the gate. Time for gamble. If I came out, it would at least be to this TSA agent who I liked rather than some mystery cops. I stood to follow her.
“Excuse me, Agent, there’s one thing that might help with the background check. I’m transgender.” She cocked her head at me, “As in, I used to be a lady, and I am a dude now. I’m sorry for not volunteering that, but I have been harassed at times when people found out, so I wanted to avoid coming out if I could, but I did not mean to limit your investigation and potentially endanger other passengers. I’m sorry, I should have just told you.”
“Augh, I knew it had to be something!” She stopped herself just short of giving me a little punch in the arm. Her face beamed. “Yes, you should have just told me! Let me call my supervisor.” She whipped out her phone, and walked over to the palm tree. After speaking, I saw her nod her head grimly. “Well, we as the TSA have officially closed our investigation of you, so the Orlando PD has been notified. But, I am having them meet us here. Since I was the lead officer, I’ll be here with you. They can be a little pushy, so it’s better over here than on their turf. And I’ll stay with you for questioning.”
“I really appreciate you helping me out, I’m sorry if I wasted any of your time,” I told her, sincerely.
She pashawed, gave a little wave gesture, “It’s not that busy this morning. And please. No trouble. You know,” she leaned in conspiratorially, “My brother is gay. And it was so tough. Not for me, for my family. My mother didn’t talk to him for eight months. But then she met his boyfriend, Enrique, and it is so funny, because he and Enrique look like twins, and she said ‘Ay! I have two beautiful sons!’ That was last Christmas. This Christmas, Enrique was over at our house eating cookies,” Bingo, I thought. “But hey—you look great! I would have never guessed, God bless! And the lady you are with?”
I nodded, “We got engaged a few months ago,” and she giggled.
“That is just great. Good for you! We will get you on that plane, I’m sure. And you’ll find that at Orlando International, the TSA is veeeeery diverse. We have everything, all working together. Dominican, Jewish, lesbian, Muslim, Puerto Rican. Everything. It’s best that way, much more fun in the workplace too. And for the passengers, there is always someone who gets you, who knows how it is.”
At that moment, I complimented her glasses, and really meant it. They suited her face perfectly.
A few moments later, two tall, bloated police officers appeared. After hanging out with V for 45 minutes, I half expected them to high five me. But as they approached, she resumed her rigid posture and I did the same. We were now a team, and they were clearly our rivals.
“C’mere,” said the first officer, gesturing for me to come closer and look at his clipboard. The younger officer was silent, with his hands down the front of his pants. I looked at the guns on their hips. What would I have to do to get shot right now? When you’re trans and people find out without you telling them, it’s hard not to wonder how they were told and how they reacted. These guys seemed like real “he-she” calling types. Shouldn’t you be working Jethro’s gator farm? Sometimes, just sometimes, private quips are enough to get me by. As I stepped forward, V put her hand up. “Officer, I forgot, I need to get my manager over here.” She whipped out her phone told a man’s voice that she needed some support in an interview.
“Where are you from?” His steely blue eyes reminded me of melting glaciers.
“You have any warrants our for your arrest, son? Because we will see them.”
“No.” You must play a really critical role in your department, if they have you working the airport on New Year’s Day. Aren’t you a little old for that?
“I’ll specify: any warrants on you, for this name or any other name you have.”
“What’s your legal name?
He seemed disappointed, “Has that always been it?”
I paused. “No.”
He made a face like he just ate a sour gumball. I realized it was a smirk. “I’m going to ask you to spell your current name, and any other names or aliases you have or have ever had.” He looked up at me, they all did. The big reveal.
Saying it always makes me taste a little bit of sour milk in the back of my throat. People knowing, when I have paid my money, gone to probate court, signed an official document stating that I am not changing my name evade any debts or warrants, alienated my family, and successfully changed it legally.
Trite, but as a certain Arthur Miller character might say, my name is all I have. And I worked hard to get it. All those days saying “Liam,” to myself in the bathroom mirror before putting my skirt on to go to school, the fight with my family a few Christmases ago where I begged them… It makes me shudder, to remember.
I don’t regret the past; I don’t regret how I was born, but the name. That’s vessel holding a lot of shame, guilt. When the officer asked me, I felt like a peach that is rotten at the pit, I appear to be one thing, I feel I am one thing, but it all comes from a place that is rotten at the core. Having people find out the old name, never my name, that’s bad enough. I can never get away from that. I am so complicated but to anyone, once they hear it, that’s all I am. Liam, formerly _________. I can live with that. But to make me say it?
I looked up at a framed poster of a manatee, hanging on the wall next to the Burger King. It was floating peacefully in a river, it had an indeterminist gender identity but it was doing great, enjoying life. Covered in airborne fast food grease at the Orlando International Airport, it was just a picture. The real manatee could be swimming anywhere. I tried to channel manatee Zen. “I would prefer to write it down.”
“What?” The Officer made a sour gumball smirk again.
“I would prefer to write it down, Officer.” My voice cracked on “down,” damn it. I cast my eyes back to the poster.
Then, V to the rescue: “Ray, come on, you heard what he asked. Give him the clipboard. He’ll write it down, you can run the background check, and we can all get on with our day.”
Reluctantly, he passed me the clipboard. I expected him to drop it so I would have to stoop and pick it up. He and his younger self looked at each other. The younger shrugged, smirked. V scooted closer to me and said “Ok, former legal name, present legal name, social, and you’re all set. You can go wait on the bench.” I turned and walked away, appreciating her thoughtfulness. I hoped V had many kids in her life, hopefully nieces and nephews. She is a perfect blend of clinical warmth.
At the bench, the sixty-year-old man had said goodbye to his better half. Tears still streamed down his face, and he had a raging erection that he tried to hide underneath a sport coat. In his hands, he held a pink card with yellow writing. Somehow, it was very endearing. He pulled his baseball cap down to cover his eyes, and we both kept our eyes on the floor. On the bench across from mine, a 14-year-old Chinese-American girl was being questioned by a TSA agent about some plastic swords in her carry-on bag: “You can’t carry weapons on an aircraft,” “But they’re from the Magic Kingdom!” Her Mickey ears, I thought, looked just right on her.
“You check out!” V called from 20 feet away. I got up and went to her, where the police officers were still standing. “We checked you every which way, and you’re clean.” The elder officer spun on his heel and walked back toward the field office, the younger loped after him.
“Ok, so now the fun part: because you have no identification, even though we’ve checked your records, we need to do a thorough frisking. You will not have to remove your clothes. And just so you know,” she leaned in conspiratorially, “This isn’t exactly policy, but I want you to be comfortable. I am going to have an LGBT officer search you,” I must have looked confused because she said, “He’s gay and he likes to uh, dress up and do karaoke.” V was a saint, I decided, the patron of misguided allies and transgender men’s lost wallets.
By now, the security lines were busier. She led me past lines of pissed off passengers waiting to get their IDs checked by the gatekeeper, past steams of people removing shoes. They paused to look at us speed by, shake their disillusioned heads at the inequity of someone bypassing the security checkpoints.
Then I passed an enclosed glass vestibule, in which a distinguished looking Sikh man of about fifty had his hands crossed over his lap, leaning back in his chair while an ex-jock of a TSA agent leaned forward across the table, talking quickly. Outside, several other people were being questioned by TSA agents. They were all people of color, mostly men. One woman wore a bindi and carried all Louis Vuitton luggage. No one was helping the other travelers like V helped me. I wondered if there was a chapter in the TSA handbook called “Security Red Flags,” subtitled “Race > Class > Sexual/Gender Identity.”
We arrived at the destination. A skinny, tall man with spindly fingers nodded at me. “Hello, I will be conducting the physical search.” He smiled warmly. I could tell he would look amazing in blush and anything with a sweetheart neckline. With that, he asked me to spread my arms. V stood outside, with her arms crossed and eyes averted. At this point, he remembered to have me remove my belt, shoes, and jacket. He was clearly nervous, and loudly announced each body part he would go over and how he would go over it (“I will now be running my hands down the outside of your legs, around the front of your legs, and behind your knees.”) When her arrived at my “upper thigh area,” he paused for a moment. I wasn’t worried. His touch was firm but not lingering.
He ran his hands around my waistband before announcing, “This will compete your search. You’re free to go.”