Traveling sucks. Or at least, the airport part (usually) sucks. I can handle the constant low-level anxiety, stripping for security, and a gripping fear of flying which causes me to come to terms with my own mortality on every take-off and turbulent bump. What really gets annoying about traveling is constant sexual harassment from TSA agents.
I feel for TSA agents, honestly, because I know I would be TERRIBLE at that job. Their capacity to maintain even a facade of sanity is impressive, let alone the rare one who's kind and, somehow, cheery. Literally every single person they talk to every day does not want to see them. What a life. But hey, they're committed to our safety! No hazardous materials plz! Thx TSA!
In sincerity though, I try not to be an asshat to TSA agents or really anyone working in an airport or airplane. It can be a hard fucking job. I sat next to an off-duty flight attendant on my way home from Chicago yesterday who told me he'd been based out of the Chicago airport for 8 years and has never been outside of the airport into actual Chicago. Think about how much time you've spent in an airport hating the fact that you're in an airport. Now multiply that by eight years. (He didn't seem too upset about it though. He lives in Portland, ME, so I understand.)
Anyway, back to my point. TSA agents are rightfully cranky sometimes but they do important work and we should respect them. Which, as someone who goes out of my way to always be at least cordial if not downright friendly to service workers, puts me in a complicated position when I get harassed every time I walk through security.*
It runs the gamut, really. Could be some guy making a crack about the see-through capabilities of the body scan machine. Could be another guy "harmlessly" flirting as I struggle to put my clothes back on in as few seconds as possible. Could be any guy giving a little pat down, "just to check," or asking me where I'm going in a manner that implies his interest is less than pure. (I've never experienced harassment from female-presenting TSA agents, which seems obvious but is also worth mentioning.) All these experiences are fleeting, unpleasant, and sexual in nature. Plus, the power dynamic is insane. I mean, part of their job is to keep people off of planes. I'm sure as hell not about to piss one of them off by turning down - let alone calling out - their inappropriate advances.
So yesterday, as I waded through security at O'Hare, I eyed each agent with trepidation. As I struggled to manage my four bins of scattered belongings, the male agent hanging out around the dressing area came over. "You've got a pin-up face," he said. I looked up. He was gesturing towards my face. I gave him a tight smile. He wasn't too close to me and seemed friendly, so I thanked him. He helped me collect my things, again keeping his distance and maintaining respectful banter. As I pulled on my belt, I made a joke about struggling to stay composed when I "basically had to take all my clothes off for security."**
"Hey! I'd like to see that!!" called over another male agent who was watching the x-ray scans of bags going by. I looked over at him with a death glare and back at the first dude. Fucking typical, I thought. I then turned away silently, shaking my head, and hustled to get the fuck out of there.
"Hey man," agent #1 said loudly. "Shut up. That's not cool. That's not what we're talkin' about over here." Agent #2 swiveled back towards the x-ray machine with a shrug. "I'm sorry miss," #1 said, "Sorry about my friend. I'm a photographer, which is why I was interested in your 'look.' You have a nice holiday." And then he went back to his day job.
I was stunned. This man - a stranger - had actually called out another man - his friend - for being sexist, and then apologized to me for making me feel uncomfortable. I cannot remember a single other time this situation has happened to me, and certainly not while traveling alone.
Later, reflecting on the practice of calling out and its various virtues and setbacks, I wished I had some way to contact this TSA agent and let him know just how meaningful that experience was to this cynical lady with bitterly low expectations. I've been so down lately on the possibility of actually engaging with men on issues of sexism. And I've been so discouraged by seemingly high-quality dudes succumbing to the type of lazy misogyny that just honestly bores the fuck out of me. I think it's important to reinforce that good behavior in a desperate attempt to stymie the bad shit.
Unfortunately I have no way of reaching him. So I wrote this instead. He'll never read it, but maybe those of us who experience harassment can find some encouragement during this busy travel season that there are a few decent people wandering around this planet. This guy was a speck - just a small, teeny speck - of hope. And let's try to be nice to TSA agents. They have to be in that airport a heck of a lot longer than you do.
Happy New Year, everyone.
*Ugh, I need help with this. How the fuck do nice progressive open-minded girls manage harassment from folks who we otherwise support politically or emotionally? Like, a couple weeks ago these guys striking for better wages next door to my office literally harassed every woman who walked past them, including me, for four hours. I could see them doing it out my window. I support unions, man, but not you calling me 'baby' when I'm getting a fucking cup of coffee. The answer is definitely not to keep a smile on no matter what. But 'calling out' doesn't seem to do justice to the complications of those situations. HELP ME OUT HERE, FOLKS.
**This joke may seem sexual or flirtatious - thus prompting the lesser among you to suggest I perhaps "asked for" or "brought on" the resulting harassment - but in the context of the conversation it wasn't. The dude was clearly not hitting on me and vice versa. Besides, no matter what I said the comment was still inappropriate. So stop victim-blaming, it's not a good look.
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