Securitizing Gender: Identity, Biometrics, and Transgender Bodies at the Airport

Currah, Paisley and Paisley Tara Mulqueen. “Securitizing Gender: Identity, Biometrics, and Transgender Bodies at the Airport.” Social Research: An International Quarterly 78 (2011): 557 - 582.

Given gender is considered an informative variable in information surveillence, the authors "examine how gender figures into and potentially disrupts the link between identity verification and security" (pg. 557). They examine the confusion caused when the TSA Advanced Imaging Technology encounters gendered bodies that are programmed to be "anamalous," particularly when conflict arises around mismatched expectations between gender presentation, gender identification on IDs, and gender classification in scans. They argue that the 2009 Secure Flight Program, which requires official gender before flying, officially securitizes gender, while the Advanced Technology Imagining program does so unintentionally.

Gender as immutable has been central to state practice since the formation of such documentation, and has been used "for the distribution of rights, obligations, and resources, including voting, registration for the draft, and eligility for pensions" (pg. 560). Classifying gender is essential to state apparatuses like marriage, particularly in states that ban "same-sex" marriages. There is also a lack of standards within states, across domestic state agencies, on how gender changes are determined and granted. Bureaucratic state barriers that problematize gender changes result in "a daily contest, a struggle over control of one’s body as well as the definition of societal membership" (pg. 561).

With the introduction of body scanners, the purpose was to securitize flights and identify terror risks, but it also inadvertently became a technology of gender verification, particularly for trans people. The move towards biometrics for identity securitization suggests the body as a site of valuable information about risk: "In the quest for perfect information, then, policymakers imagine that the body itself will not just provide, but actually be the perfect piece of information" (pg. 568). While gender is not actually a unique identifier, in that every person only has one gender identifier, "the assumption that the classification of M or F is a permanent feature of the body underlies the rationale for its use in identity verification. Identity is not simply a matter of who one is but also what one is" (pg. 569). Rather than determining who one is, gender is an attempt at triangiulating "who one is not" when comparing individuals to watch lists. The following except sums how the airport become a site of normative gender construction:

"At the airport, expectations of passengers’ gender reflect the unquestioned and often unthought common sense of gender as an unchanging biometric characteristic: that there is a perfectly harmonious relationship between the sex classification an individual is assigned at birth based on a visual inspection of the body (what one was), one’s current “biological sex” (what one is), one’s gender identity (what one says one is), one’s gender presentation (what one looks like to others) and the gender classification on the particular identity document one proffers. Indeed, the vast majority of people walk through airport security uninhibited by any confusion over their gender, and those uncontested passages reinforce and reflect the common sense belief that gender is a unitary component of identity" (pg. 571).
Trans people will thus often engage in "identity normalizing strategies" for safety at airports, further entrenching the uncontested and naturalized image of gender.