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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