One of my commitments with the store is to help all people find the intimate apparel which suits their needs, preferences, and budgets, including men. Men wear bras for any number of personal and medical reasons, and I have been a strong advocate in not only helping men traverse their own unique fit problems but also in encouraging broader societal acceptance. Through these efforts, I came to meet Shay who has a medical condition known as gynecomastia which causes the benign growth of breasts in biological males. In some cases, the most comfortable way to live with the condition is to wear a bra for support, but while that may be the simplest solution, it’s hardly the easiest one. Our culture is exceptionally hung up on gender norms and body policing. Boys should dress like boys, and girls should dress like girls, right? It not only assigns certain clothing and even behaviors to one gender as being “acceptable,” but it also leaves no room for anyone to depart from those norms, to say nothing of the implications on trans people as well as those who are non-binary or genderqueer. And unfortunately, people can be exceptionally cruel and malicious when presented with someone who behaves outside of the way they expect. Shay and I have discussed this many times via email, and I told him I would really love for him to guest post occasionally on the blog, particularly because he brings a completely different perspective to the table. After some poor timing on both our parts, we finally came together for his introductory post focusing on a terrifying experience where being outside cultural gender norms can have embarrassing repercussions: a body search by the TSA.
The Guy Wearing a Bra who got searched by the TSA
Who is he?
Have you ever wondered what that guy in a lingerie store is doing, besides shopping for his significant other? That guy is me. I have a benign condition called gynecomastia, which causes breast growth in males, and I wear bras for comfort and support. Over the years, I have discovered just how fun and expressive bras can be.
I first started wearing bras when I was twenty, as detailed in this blog. The decision was hard since I felt people would view me as less of a man or a freak. However, I felt more comfortable with the support that the bras provided, so I continued to wear them.
That was 15 years ago. It is no longer a decision for me. It is just a piece of clothing that I put on every day. My tastes in bras have evolved since I bought my first bras – all of them lacy. At that time, I did not know that there were other, more comfortable and practical bras to be had. Nowadays, most of my bras are T-Shirt bras. One of my everyday bras has lace, but most of them do not have any lace. For the record, I do not wear panties – I am a boxer man!
Over the years, I have had various experiences in wearing bras. One of the more colorful experiences happened while the TSA was screening me. It opened my eyes as to what women potentially go through in airport security checkpoints. Sure enough, one of my female friends shared her horror story with me. I am surprised this did not happen to me until now.
“Sir, are you wearing some kind of brace?”
I looked at the computer screen for the full body scanner. The squares plainly indicated an alert on the underwire on one side of my bra. I was annoyed. Whoever or whatever was monitoring the scanner images ought to be able to spot an underwire for what it is.
I answered the officer in the affirmative. The officer searched me with a metal detector wand, which beeped on my bra clasp and underwire. He began feeling me up. His hands felt rough on my body. He ran his hands up and down my back, across my bra clasp and up my bra straps. I felt violated.
The officer told me I would need to lift up my shirt to show him. Oh, great! I get to show my underwear to a TSA officer that I just met and who may not react appropriately!
The officer asked me if I would need a private room for the secondary screening. I indicated that I would. Two officers came up to me and asked me to identify my property. I pointed to 3 bins. I walked over and grabbed my watch. By this time, I was ticked off and not going to miss my flight without complaint.
“Sir, please don’t … eh … I guess that is ok.”
I had grabbed my watch from the bin and looked at it. It was just after 5:00 am. I still had 40 minutes until they started boarding my flight. Hopefully, this would not take long: Flash male TSA officers. Let them see that an underwire bra is an underwire bra. Go to the gate. Catch plane.
One of the two TSA officers escorting me grabbed my property bins and roughly stacked them. He followed me as the other officer led me to a small room. It had a metal counter, with a single desk lamp providing the light in the place. There were no chairs. The carpet looked like the TSA had not vacuumed it in 6 months. The TSA had various items stacked against the walls. A rectangular mirror leaned against the right wall.
“I am wearing a bra! I have a big chest, and it is more comfortable that way”, I asserted.
The two officers who were in the room with me and blocking the door did not immediately respond. They asked me to lift up the back of my shirt, which I dutifully did. It seemed like an eternity as I held my shirt up as high as possible without having to slide it over my chest. I waited and waited, having no idea what they were doing back there. After what seemed like an eternity, the officers indicated that I had passed inspection.
“May I get dressed now?” I asked in a thoroughly annoyed voice.
“Yes, you can,” one of the officers responded.
Then they were gone, and I was alone in the room. I put on my socks, shoes, belt, and jewelry. I packed up my laptop and other electronic devices (I have a lot!), grabbed my bags and left the security checkpoint. The officers whom I’d just shown my bra were nowhere in sight.
I could not help but wonder if the officer reviewing the full body scans, supposedly able to see my guy parts, thought it would be funny to subject me to secondary screening. Upon further research, I learned that the scanners now use Automated Target Recognition (ATR) software so that TSA officers do not have to review the images themselves. It is unclear to me whether it is true that there no human component in evaluating the raw scans, and whether the TSA erases the scans after review.
I left the security checkpoint feeling violated. I did not expect the TSA to put me through such an intimate inspection. I suppose I should be thankful that they did not stick their hands in my bra cups or make me take it off. However, I find it hard to feel that way when I was taken to a dark and imposing room and asked to show my underwear. As a survivor of several sexual assaults, it is quite hard for me to reconcile that what happened was somehow OK in the name of national security.
Some friends of mine have asked me if I would stop wearing bras through the airport because of this. The answer is no. I may wear a wireless bra, but I do not see a purpose in not wearing a bra altogether. I do not want to dodge something that women deal with all the time – and should not have to in my opinion.
Fifty-one percent of the population is female, and the vast majority of bras on the market have underwires in them. The TSA’s scanners do not alert on every person who walks through a checkpoint with an underwire bra. These scanners can recognize metal implants, artificial joints, and other implanted medical devices and not return false positives. As an experienced technology professional myself, I find it hard to believe that these scanners cannot be (and have not been) taught to recognize an underwire bra for what it is, regardless of the gender of the wearer. As an aside, if the TSA ever pulls you into a private room for additional screening, please know that you have a right to take a witness of your choosing with you, in order to witness your screening.
The experience made me more sensitive to what women can potentially go through when being screened by airport security. I told a couple of female friends what happened and they both told me horror stories – with one having to remove her bra in public for French screeners. In a way, it does make me want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these women. I suppose it is my way of saying, “if you are going to screen women’s bras with a potentially unnecessary level of scrutiny, you might have to end up screening my bra too.”