Disrupting Links: Gender, Identity and Security

This paper is about, as the title in­dic­ates, dis­rupting cer­tain per­vasive and seem­ingly ob­vious links.[1] First, the link between gender and iden­tity, wherein gender is as­sumed to be a stable, re­li­able de­term­inant of an iden­tity that also as­sumed to be fixed. Following from the as­sumed fixity of iden­tity comes a link to se­curity, wherein the more pre­cise we can be in de­term­ining iden­tity, the better se­curity ap­par­at­uses, in this case those found in U.S. air­ports, can func­tion (as more and better in­form­a­tion leads to more per­fect se­curity). The ex­per­i­ence of trans­gender people ex­poses the tenuous nature of these links, as non-​normative bodies and ap­pear­ances con­found their basic assumptions.

In an art­icle de­scribing his ex­per­i­ence of having a heart trans­plant, L’Intrus, Jean-​Luc Nancy presents a number of in­triguing ideas about iden­tity, and spe­cific­ally iden­tity as it relates to the body.[2] After finding that his ailing heart had be­come a stranger to him, and had really al­ways been a stranger, he comes to the no­tion that, and I quote, “The in­trus [the in­truder or the stranger] is no other than me, my self; none other than man him­self. No other than the one, the same, al­ways identical to it­self and yet that is never done with al­tering it­self. At the same time sharp and spent, stripped bare and over-​equipped, in­truding upon the world and upon it­self: a dis­quieting up­surge of the strange, conatus of an in­finite ex­cres­cence.”[3]

In other words, for Nancy, we are al­ways – in a sense – growing out from ourselves; iden­tity is in no tan­gible way stable or con­crete over time. Nor is iden­tity re­du­cible to any one part of the body; not even some­thing as seem­ingly central as the heart is in any way con­stitutive of the self.

If one takes these ideas as a premise for un­der­standing iden­tity, then prac­tices of iden­tity veri­fic­a­tion – as mani­fested in se­curity ap­par­at­uses – seek the im­possible. If even at the level of the body, we are not con­sistent or unitary selves, what hap­pens when through the se­cur­it­iz­a­tion of iden­tity, parts of ourselves and our bodies are singled out as de­term­in­ants of identity?

The an­swer, in brief, is that con­tra­dic­tions and con­flicts emerge, per­haps not so much for the state or reg­u­latory agency, but for the people who do not fit into the rigid, norm­ative cat­egories which un­der­gird se­curity apparatuses.

This is pre­cisely the ex­per­i­ence of trans­gendered people when they pass through se­curity at the air­port and in the vast ma­jority of their in­ter­ac­tions with the reg­u­latory ap­par­at­uses of the state. Gender, whether ap­pre­hended through an iden­tity doc­u­ment, an individual’s present­a­tion or a bodily con­fig­ur­a­tion, is taken to not only to be a stable cat­egory, but also a re­li­able de­term­inant of an individual’s iden­tity, of who they are or are not.

The Secure Flight and Whole Body Imaging pro­grams, im­ple­mented by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration in 2009 and 2010 re­spect­ively, il­lus­trate the im­possib­ility of pre­dicting with ab­so­lute cer­tainty that some­thing about a person, even some­thing os­tens­ibly sourced from or lodged in the body such as gender, will stay the same over time.

In an ex­cel­lent ex­ample of what Mariana Valverde and Michael Mopas have called “tar­geted gov­ernance,” these pro­grams seek to lessen po­ten­tial risks to air­crafts by at­tempting to achieve “per­fect in­form­a­tion” about pas­sen­gers be­fore they board[4] – with the un­der­lying as­sump­tion that the more in­form­a­tion you have about a person, the less risk he or she poses – iden­tity, for the TSA, is one of the “known knowns.”

Secure Flight re­quires pas­sen­gers to provide air­lines with their name, date of birth and gender prior to their ar­rival at the air­port, so that this in­form­a­tion can be run against the No Fly List and Terrorist Watch List for po­ten­tial matches. Gender, it is ar­gued, helps to re­duce the pos­sib­ility of false matches, since “many names are gender neutral.”[5] When pas­sen­gers check in, the in­form­a­tion they provided is checked against their passport.

The Advanced Imaging Technology pro­gram (the body scan­ners), in con­trast, is not an ex­plicit site of iden­tity veri­fic­a­tion but provides a way, once an individual’s iden­tity has been checked and cleared, to en­sure that they are not car­rying any­thing on their body that could po­ten­tially harm the plane or its pas­sen­gers. [At the mo­ment, where this tech­no­logy has been im­ple­mented, it is not man­datory to pass through the scan­ners, but the al­tern­ative is an “en­hanced pat down.”] However, for trav­elers who have atyp­ical bodies, the body scanner serves as yet an­other place where their iden­tity is chal­lenged, as TSA agents are seeing things in the body scans that they don’t ex­pect to be there. So, for ex­ample, someone whose gender present­a­tion is fe­male may have a penis, or someone with a male present­a­tion might have breasts.

Gender, through both of these pro­grams is ef­fect­ively se­cur­it­ized, meaning that in order for an in­di­vidual to pass through se­curity without in­cident, they must have norm­at­ively gendered ap­pear­ances and bodies (or a letter from a doctor ex­plaining why their ap­pear­ances and bodies are dif­ferent as the TSA and some trans­gender rights groups advise).

Mark Salter points out that air­ports “con­di­tion and nor­malize par­tic­ular iden­tities.“[6] More spe­cific­ally, in an ex­am­in­a­tion of ef­fects of na­tional se­curity iden­ti­fic­a­tion policies on trans­gender people, Toby Beauchamp has shown how sur­veil­lance sys­tems are “deeply rooted in the main­ten­ance and en­force­ment of norm­at­ively gendered bodies, be­ha­viors and iden­tities.”[7] When a person doesn’t meet norm­ative ex­pect­a­tions about their gender — when their doc­u­ments do not match their ap­pear­ance, when their bodies con­found norm­ative as­sump­tions — it pro­duces an an­omaly, and in the highly se­cur­it­ized en­vir­on­ment of the air­port, an an­omaly is an event. The an­omaly is im­me­di­ately per­ceived as a po­ten­tial threat. Here are just a couple of ex­amples of how this can play out in practice.

There is one case in which a “male trans­gender at­torney was de­tained for two hours on his way to an out of town court hearing by TSA agents be­cause his in­timate ana­tomy, as in­dic­ated by a whole-​body image scan and a sub­sequent pat down, did not con­form to agents’ ex­pect­a­tions of what a man’s body should look or feel like.” During his de­ten­tion, he “was sub­jected to hu­mi­li­ating per­sonal ques­tions and com­ments” about the his­tory of his body and his iden­tity. But that’s not all: a bomb ap­praisal unit was called in to eval­uate him as a po­ten­tial threat. Eventually, he was al­lowed to board a later flight. But he was ad­vised to carry “a physician’s letter re­garding his trans­gender status whenever he flies” so that the situ­ation could be re­solved more quickly the next time.[8]

In an­other ex­ample, when my co-​author men­tioned to a friend that he was working on this art­icle, the friend re­vealed that the same thing had happened to him: after walking through the body scanner, and then un­der­going an “en­hanced” pat down, he was taken to a small room where agents an­nounced they had found a “gon­adal an­omaly” that had to be in­vest­ig­ated as a po­ten­tial threat to the se­curity of the air­plane be­fore he could board.

This ex­per­i­ence is har­rowing for anyone with non-​normative ap­pear­ances and bodies. Blogger Katherine Cross provides a telling narrative:

I es­corted my be­long­ings, the worn leather boots that could the­or­et­ic­ally con­tain a bomb, the belt that could the­or­et­ic­ally con­tain a trigger mech­anism. Or co­caine. My handbag full of fem­inist lit­er­ature (now there’s some­thing ex­plosive). That was when mo­tion caught my eye and I saw some­thing omin­ously towering over the old fash­ioned metal de­tector. The rounded slate grey hulk of an x-​ray ma­chine scan­ning men and women in a sur­ren­dering po­s­i­tion, arms held un­threat­en­ingly high above their heads. I swal­lowed thickly won­dering if the jig was up, if I would at last have to face trans­phobia at the air­port, if I would have to sit in a room listening to im­per­tinent ques­tions about what was in my knickers. [9]

This is not a unique ex­per­i­ence for trans­gendered in­di­viduals. In prac­tic­ally any en­gage­ment with the reg­u­latory or bur­eau­cratic ap­par­at­uses of the state, con­flicts and con­tra­dic­tions over the meaning of gender present ser­ious chal­lenges. As Currah explains,

Sex changes. When some in­di­viduals cross bor­ders, walk into a gov­ern­ment of­fice to apply for be­ne­fits, get a driver’s li­cense, go to prison, sign up for se­lective ser­vice, try to get mar­ried, or have any in­ter­ac­tion with any arm of the state, the legal sex of some people can and often does switch from male to fe­male, or fe­male to male. To com­plicate mat­ters even more, al­most every state agency — from fed­eral to mu­ni­cipal — has the au­thority to de­cide its own rules for sex clas­si­fic­a­tion. The lack of a uni­form standard for clas­si­fying people as male or fe­male means that some state agen­cies will re­cog­nize the new gender of people who wish to change their gender and some will not. For most people, this does not ap­pear to be a problem. For others, it is.[10]

Or as one woman testi­fying be­fore a New York City Council hearing put it, “I do not suffer from gender dys­phoria. I suffer from bur­eau­cratic dys­phoria. My ID does not match my ap­pear­ance. I worry every time I apply for a job, every time I au­thorize a credit card check, every time I buy a plane ticket, every time I buy a beer at the corner deli. I have changed my name but my gender con­tinues to be of­fi­cially and bur­eau­crat­ic­ally M.” [11]

The ma­chine, in the case of the air­port, is not just the body scanner (as ominous as it is) but the whole se­curity “as­semblage” at the air­port. Identity veri­fic­a­tion prac­tices at the air­port are part of a vast net­work and great machine-​like system where data is stored and cross-​referenced, where agents patrol and keep watch, where our bodies and be­long­ings are scru­tin­ized to an as­ton­ish­ingly high de­gree. In our thinking about this, my co-​author and I have turned to the concept of “as­semblage” from Deleuze and Guattari. Assemblages can be un­der­stood broadly as “func­tional con­glom­er­a­tions of ele­ments” in which each ele­ment gains meaning in its re­la­tion to the others in the as­semblage (Currier 2003: 203). The se­curity as­semblage at the air­port is a con­ver­gence of many parts, from tech­no­lo­gies and se­curity strategies to bodies and so­cial norms; it is, like the air­port it­self, “a messy system of sys­tems, em­bedded within nu­merous net­works and so­cial spheres.”[12]

This ma­chine, or as­semblage, fet­ish­izes and pro­duces a par­tic­ular con­cep­tion of gender by dis­reg­arding its socially-​produced char­acter, as­suming it to be nat­ural and im­mut­able, and making it a key facet of se­curity; this is also true for iden­tity in gen­eral. Indeed, through the ex­pan­sion of bio­metric tech­no­lo­gies, it is as­sumed that the body holds the ul­ti­mate truth about iden­tity. Of the pos­sible epi­stem­o­lo­gical sources of human iden­tity — what one is (a body), what one says about one­self (a nar­rative), what one does (a per­form­ance), and what one has in hand (a token) — it is the is–ness of the body that reigns su­preme in the quest for per­fect in­form­a­tion. [13]

However, epi­stem­o­lo­gic­ally speaking and as the ex­per­i­ence of trans­gendered in­di­viduals shows, such as­sured know­ledge never really pos­sible. The link between iden­tity and se­curity which is so as­sured for the TSA, is un­ten­able at best. However, the con­sequences of this are not felt by the TSA but by those who are forced to fit into the cat­egories which the state re­cog­nizes (even if those cat­egories are mu­tu­ally con­tra­dictory). When mean­ings are con­tested, as Hobbes says, it is au­thority, not truth, that makes the law.

Nancy states that the “I” al­ways finds it­self caught in the bat­tle­ments and gaps of tech­nical pos­sib­il­ities.” [14] With this, he was re­fer­ring to the tech­no­lo­gies which sus­tain or pro­long life, but it also opens up thinking about what hap­pens to the “I” in the se­cur­it­iz­a­tion of gender. The “I” is, above all, af­fixed to the body; a body that is norm­at­ively gendered and a body that does not change.


[1] This paper is part of an on­going pro­ject. See Paisley Currah and Tara Mulqueen. 2011. “Securitizing Gender: Identity, Biometrics and Transgender Bodies at the Airport.” Social Research 78:2. 557 – 582.

[2] Nancy, Jean-​Luc. 2002. “L’Intrus.” The New Centennial Review 2:3 (1 – 14).

[3] ibid: 13

[4] Valverde, Mariana and M. Mopas. “Insecurity and the Dream of Targeted Governance.” in Global Governmentality: Governing International Spaces, edited by W. Larner and W. Walters, pp. 233 – 250. London: Routledge, 2004.

[5] US Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration, 49 CFR Parts 1540, 1544, and 1560, “Secure Flight Program: Final Rule,” Federal Register, Volume 73, No. 209, Tuesday, October 28, 2008.

[6] Salter, Mark. “Airport Assemblage.” in Politics at the Airport, edited by Mark Salter, pp. ix-​xix. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

[7] Beauchamp, Toby. “Artful Concealment and Strategic Visibility: Transgender Bodies and US State Surveillance After 9/​11.” Surveillance & Society 6, No. 4 (2009): 356 – 366.

[8] Keisling, Mara (ex­ec­utive dir­ector, National Center for Transgeder Equality), Kate Kendall (ex­ec­utive dir­ector, National Center for Lesbian Rights), and Masen Davis (ex­ec­utive dir­ector, Transgender Law Center). Letter to John S. Pistole (ad­min­is­trator, Transportation Security Administration), December 17, 2010. http://​transequality​.org/​P​D​F​s​/​N​C​T​E​_​N​C​L​R​_​T​L​C​_​1​2​1​7​1​0​.​pdf

[10] Currah, Paisley. The United States of Gender. New York: New York University Press, forthcoming.

[11] Currah, Paisley. “The Transgender Rights Imaginary.” in Feminist and Queer Legal Theory: Intimate Encounters, Uncomfortable Conversations, edited by Martha Albertson Fineman, Jack E. Jackson, Adam P. Romero, pp. 245 – 258. London: Ashgate Press, 2009.

[12] Salter, ibid: xiii.

[13] Ajana, Btihaj. “Recombinant Identities: Biometrics and Narrative Bioethics.” Bioethical Inquiry 7 (2010): 237 – 258.

[14] Nancy, ibid: 3.

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