TSA Hurt Me Again: Re-breaking My Leg, Another Day in the Life

Content warning: discussion of sexual violence, as well as details of pain & a broken bone

Flying Home
I made it to the airport an hour and half before my 2 hour flight home to Atlanta. It was a rainy day in Philadelphia and I was ready to get back to my love. I was in need of relaxation after a provocative weekend of teaching about disability and chronic conditions to just under 25 fantastic graduate students in sex therapy and sex ed. I was tired, but had budgeted time for coffee as well as the typical buffer for broken elevators, traffic, etc.

Everything worked with the driver on my way to the airport! He wouldn’t listen when I told him I didn’t want to be helped, but no one was harmed… Moving along.

I went through the shorter disability access line to get to security. An agent promptly showed up asking me how I needed help. Instead of a typical long wait while people scream “female assist” – waiting for a “fellow same-sexed” TSA (Transportation Security Administration) agent to do a pat down (the enforcement of the gender binary is violent alone, the screaming adds to the impact of this) – I was ushered quickly beyond the body scanners.

The Pat-down Breakdown
I was thrilled to move along so quickly, as generally I can wait to be patted down for up to 20 minutes. The agent spoke to me like a baby who had something sparkly dangled in front of her face while she directed me to an area marked by two foot prints – a mark for a person to stand on so you can stare at your bags, if you like.

She slowly moved through the speech TSA agents are forced to give (I have tried to skip it, no dice) about touching sensitive areas with the back of the hand and asking whether I want a private screening. In consideration of time, I generally waive the private screening.

I was, as always, asked if I could stand. I said no. Many of us can stand, and the question remains irksome. I gave notice that I have no sensitive areas aside from my broken leg. Like many times I travel, I was asked as a joke if my sternum (the bone poking in the middle of my breasts; a protruding sternum is a characteristic of my disability, Osteogenesis Imperfecta – OI) was a medical device or a gun. To be fair, the latter has happened no less than 5 times but it’s still worth-noting. To top it off, my brace was jokingly talked of as a bomb. Oh, the humor. Oh, the white privilege of all of this being “funny.” I didn’t laugh.

The agent called for her manager because of the sensitive level of my brace. Not my healing leg as a sensitive issue, the basically transparent brace on my leg was a key security issue. So I waited while a person stroked under my breasts, through my hair, down my back, under my legs, and then after getting me to lean to the sides – stroked all over my butt and vulva. Likely because she was being watched by her boss, the agent was very thorough and therefore very invasive. They both joked about how I should be happy about getting a massage before the flight. I uncomfortably laughed.

Phenomenological note: Writing and editing (as if one exists without the other) this part makes me feel nauseated. It’s a very pit of stomach disgust that feels unsolvable or otherwise just very out of reach.

At the time it felt like my experiences of sexual violence in a very visceral way; the joking just added to the feeling of misogyny flavored violence. I continue to feel gross and a particular kind of guilt, feeling like I’m a sellout or anti-my-body-politic gal for talking happily to them both throughout, focusing on the fashion of the manager. I “bonded” over the scarcity of pockets in femme clothing rather than offering a voice of resistance.

Along with planning extra time assuming ableism or other structural barriers that may impair my travel time, I also generally try to be the happiest version of me through TSA. I’m talkative, flattering, and “too much” purposefully. This is leveraging my cis-woman white privilege in a very intense way. I would not survive half the stuff I say in a lot of other bodies, and many spaces including TSA. I usually talk about sex too much, too loudly. I often wear a dick or vulva necklace and point to it. Talking through the process is a coping tool. It seems humor and engagement reduces the intensity of the scans, at least making the encounter more humanized. It helps.

When we moved to my brace, gloves had to be changed and tested. I reminded them my leg was broken – maybe I was supposed to say I am a sensate human or something to express capacity to feel pain beyond social discomfort.

The agent again asked if I wanted a private screening. She turned to her manager asking “does she need a…” kind of skirt to show off my entire brace, as it goes up to my hip. I pulled up my skirt explaining I was wearing shorts, not that they need to ask for that when they can feel my body.

The agent then felt the brace up and down while I supported my leg at rest. She then picked my leg up, without asking, like my leg was something to look for an expiration date on the bottom of and then dropped it. Though I was supporting my leg I couldn’t stop the motion, but could help balance myself when she let go of her grip. Again, my leg was close to healed but I explained more than once I was wearing the brace because of a fracture. My leg for all they knew was a fresh fracture. I cannot imagine how terrible that would have been.

After that, gloves were changed again to scan my wheelchair, which also was thorough. I am not sure how long this took. I had to keep talking to them and needed help after the close of the experience. As soon as I left the area the realization of feeling violated and gross washed over me. I went to the bathroom and when I transferred onto the toilet I felt my bone move –  the TSA agent re-broke my goddamn leg. I sat crying on the toilet and called Sara to apologize that this happened. She didn’t want nor need my apology – I felt the need to apologize for my body failing us as a family. This makes the date of moving out of the brace farther off.

Phenomenological note: I feel absolutely flustered writing this. Even if this didn’t entail physical pain I can quantify on a chart, it’s taking away my freedom and I’m pissed. I’m sad. I’m angry with my body. I’m angry that I’m thinking about my body and not the structures first. I hate still questioning my own legitimacy of pain – both psychic and physical. This part makes my soul howl in primal pain. I don’t know how to make this kind of pain grow up and be sensible. These tears feel communal and filled with lifetimes of ache.

The Friday after this trip (March 31, 2017) was to be a doctor appointment that was the x-ray check in AND set-me-free-from-the-brace date! No longer.


Responding to This
Some may wonder how could I not tell right away that I was hurt and why I didn’t immediately scream or cry. This is a somewhat common experience in my life and that of some other folks with OI (brittle bones): fracturing and not knowing until something tips off awareness or x-rays that show sites where calcium has deposited to heal the bone. Some fractures are not visible via x-ray until healed, so going to the ER can be gaslighting in effect. I have had many moments when I have been so delirious, running on adrenaline and exhaustion from conferences, extensive travel, or in this case teaching that I don’t really feel all of my body pain until I fully allow my body to rest by feeling off/introverted when home.  

Example: I broke my ribs and my ear (thus lost some more hearing; first ear fracture was due to loud bloody EDM) in Hawaii when a wave tossed me over, but I didn’t know until I was back on the mainland sometime after talking to a doctor. #CartesianDualismRealness.

People have been shocked and appalled to hear this story! They have squealed about going to the media. Yes to all of that, and yes, I have filed a complaint. My friends and I have tweeted about this. I need to do what a friend keeps encouraging – write TSA with my legislators CC’d on these notes. I need to do that and write about all the other things that are falling apart in the world. Right now, I do not have the energy to go to the media. It was hard writing this – just going through the memories is a hard process, especially on top of feeling the physical pain right now. It has really kicked me in the gut in terms of working on school work. I need a lot more sleep when broken, in part because the sleep is disturbed by waking up when the bone moves and because the body sleeps to regenerate.

This unanticipated injury has negatively impacted my ability to focus, has caused delays in my grading and the thrown off my timeline in anticipating being able to solo walk with the dog, to wheel up hills on my own and generally turn off this hyper-vigilant wheeling mode. I am tired of scanning the world like Terminator – needing to see the gaps in sidewalks, and feeling that awful sink the stomach when I hit a bump that feels too close to a flip over. Being injured triggers a slew of worries that are all out of my control, and I know better than wasting my time there. It’s also really important to recognize the privilege that I know that this is a temporary state – both in terms of bodily pain and ability, as well as the hyper-vigilant mode of living. For many that is living everyday mode.

The other part about this is that people are shocked yet shouldn’t be by the intensity of the pat-down – a total violation of my body – and paternalistic treatment via sing songy patronizing tone. It is expected. I hope for better, and there are plenty of people who make the world a wonderful place and I love them. I try to expect the worst. Even when expected, it can still be crushing.

Everyday Ableism
People are amazed others would act this way. They are similarly amazed at the microaggressions many of us experience – the really intrusive questions (my favorites being “can you feel down there,” “can you have children,” and “who takes care of you?”), the blatant disregard of our own capacities of self-direction and choice (noted in asking others about our needs or in the airport case asking who I’m traveling with/how amazing it is I travel alone), the extreme stares, the non-consensual touching of us and our assistive devices or service animals, the physical harm to our bodyminds and our devices.

All of these expressions of ableism seem reasonable to the person doing them because curiosity is “natural.” People just want to know, they say. Those of us in marked Other bodyminds inhabit public bodies – with an onus on us to be a spectacle and an educator about Otherness. Aside from navigating the worlds of social services, healthcare, and finding accessible paths and places, the job of disabled people is clearly to educate and entertain nondisabled people. Along the way of doing all of those jobs, we get to be pinned politically as burdens! Ah yes, us “useless eaters” must do all of this labor to assure people they are still nondisabled.

I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, it’s a boulder. I’m grumpy, tired, and need to – as Dr. Loree Erickson speaks to in their beautiful film Want – focus more on fucking than finding the accessible bus or path. I am so tired of all the things. I just want to read a book feeling unencumbered by so much weight, and I know it’s the weight that got me here and informs my work but sometimes I would like to set it down for a break. By the way, did I remind y’all this is essentially my first semester as a doctoral student, as I had to withdraw last semester because my wife was in the hospital? Yeah so there’s that whole thing to do, too!

This is just another day in the life of a gimp. Survival of the gimpest!