The British Journal of Social Work, Volume 53, Issue 3, April 2023, Pages 1546–1551, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcad026
Published: 15 May 2023 Article history
Issue Section: Article
Having been abused as a child by parents, family and teachers I’ve always been very intimidated by heavy-handed authority. Whilst I recognise the importance of rules in many situations, I believe they should be implemented in a humane way without threats or coercion and it should be easier to question rules as some may be unfair. But many authority figures don’t use minimal force. As an adult I wanted to do everything to ensure I wasn’t abused again. But keeping myself safe as an adult came at a very high price — a price that cost me my mental health, emotional well-being, travel opportunities, my ability to work, my reputation, my belief in myself, my relationship with a close relative and almost my life.
As an autistic transwoman I’ve always had issues with my body, particularly around nudity. So when a policy was implemented in 2010 stating that randomly selected passengers flying from UK airports must go through a body scanner that could see a naked image of them and that anyone who refused would be denied boarding, I became too afraid to fly to India to see an elderly relative. Having always been very attached to her I found the prospect of never seeing her again very distressing and seeing no way out of this situation I soon became suicidal. I raised the issue politically but this was unsuccessful. So I tried campaigning on social media but soon found myself subjected to a 10-year hate campaign for doing so. Whilst I could have technically travelled to Continental Europe where passengers had the right to opt-out of the body scanner or I could have opted out in the UK from 2013 there were reports from the USA and elsewhere that security officers touched passengers’ intimate parts and even put their hands down passengers’ underwear. There were cases where passengers were forced through body scanners even in countries where passengers legally had the right to opt-out — they rushed passengers through the security process and scanned them before they could say they wanted to opt-out. I also feared being denied boarding on the return trip and being stranded in India. The full story about this has so many different aspects that would be impossible to explain in 3,000 words so this article only scratches the surface of my lived experience.
Nudity has always felt like a sexual thing to me. So the fear of being forced to undergo a body scan that would involve someone looking at a naked image of me felt like a sexual violation to me and brought back trauma from childhood where nudity was forced on me. When I spoke about this it angered a lot of people, many of whom accused me of invalidating the experiences of “real” victims of rape and sexual abuse. That was never my intention but having learned about neurodiversity I’ve learned that different brains work in different ways and my brain works differently around nudity, sexuality and the relationship between the two.
When I started speaking on social media about the issue of invasive airport security, many people accused me of putting people’s safety at risk with my campaign. They even conflated my activism with terrorism. One example of this was someone telling me I was probably on a terror watchlist because of what I’ve said on social media and that I’d be arrested the moment I set foot inside an airport. Another example was someone taking my face on a Facebook picture of me and superimposing it onto an image of Osama bin Laden. Others made very explicit remarks about my body and gender identity. I once got an anonymous phonecall from someone asking me how big my genitals are. Some told me to kill myself when I mentioned being suicidal. I feel all this happened because of political rhetoric from the top, stating that anyone who questioned government policy on security was “with the terrorists” and that anyone objecting to searches, no matter how invasive must have “something to hide”. This taught people to see me as the enemy and some saw that as justification to bully, be abusive and dehumanise me. Because of these messages from multiple people I ended up believing I was a terrorist and feared the authorities persecuting me.
As traumatising as this was, what I found so much more confusing were people who appeared as if they were trying to help me. Many people I spoke to medicalised my lived experience and saw it as a psychiatric issue instead of a socio-political issue. They’d argue that what needed to change was my attitude to the violation instead of the violation itself. They said I should “overcome” my natural and human feelings about my body by taking CBT. When I explained how being trans came into it they came up with theories about why I’m trans and how I can “cure” it. They suggested I do so by going to a nudist beach or becoming a life model. They spoke to me in very inappropriate ways but the volume of people who spoke to me like that led me to believe that most people think like that and that I was the one with problematic thinking, especially when some in the trans community and members of my own family turned against me. Many people focused on my fear being the problem and spoke about how my fear has prevented me from seeing my relative and travelling the world. I feel I need to contest that point — it’s not my fear that held me back, it’s the refusal of society to consider making the adjustments I needed. Had people been willing to have non-threatening conversations that were respectful of my lived experience with me earlier, I don’t believe I’d have been held back in the way I was.
I’d hoped for more support from both the trans community and my family but received none from either apart from a few individual trans friends. When I first sought support from the trans community I didn’t know gender means different things to different people and that transpeople have their own feelings about their gender and body that are unique to them. That’s all good but some of those that felt differently about their gender and body to me told me the way I felt was wrong. I told them my story and they used slogans like “your genitals don’t define your gender”. Whilst I agree there are some people for whom that’s true and that society shouldn’t make judgements on a person’s gender based on their genitals, others might not be able to apply that to their own body and that’s ok too. Many in the trans community actually went along with the mainstream thinking that if you object to invasive searches then you have something to hide. And many accused me of putting people’s safety at risk just like many people outside the trans community. I feel many people used the argument that genitals don’t define a person’s gender (which can be empowering when used appropriately) to dismiss my lived experience that made me feel being forced to reveal body parts of a gender I don’t identify with would be a denial of my true gender identity. That might not be the case for them but it is for me.
There’s a common belief that anti-LGBT+ discrimination is not as bad as it used to be. Whilst I’ve seen and experienced many examples of this, that wasn’t my experience whilst being subjected to the hate campaign even if it was for others. I’ve experienced transphobic discrimination all my life and the bigotry I experienced as a child and teenager in the 1980s and 1990s certainly was bad. But I knew what I was up against then — a bigoted society that forced me to be somebody else because it wanted to pretend I didn’t exist. But it felt particularly confusing when I was experiencing transphobia because of the points I made about airport security not taking into account my concerns regarding gender identity whilst many of the same people who supported those measures and medicalised my fears about them also rightly supported pro-LGBT+ policies like Equal Marriage and even the right for transpeople to self-identify. Because of the argument that genitals don’t define a person’s gender many people didn’t recognise that the policy of compulsory body scanning was discriminatory towards transpeople like myself. It’s true body scanning and invasive searches aren’t issues for some transpeople, I know many such people myself. But that doesn’t negate the fact that they are for others like myself. Many people believe invasive searches are more appropriate if they are carried out by members of the same sex. But that thinking is based on cis/heterosexuality being the norm and doesn’t take into account people like myself for whom gender and the relationship to gender with their body might be more complex.
There was one person who did go above and beyond to try and help me though. A digital mental health campaigner assisted me in putting a blog and petition together and I think something could have really come of it. But because of the hate campaign I was subjected to I was very scared of putting them out. I feared the authorities persecuting me and past attempts to get my voice heard failed so I feared this would too. I looked at finding alternative ways to India like sea travel but alternatives were very expensive and impractical. Most people I spoke to led me to believe that there was nothing I could do about my situation and that any efforts I made would fail. They’d been proved right up to this point and I feared my petition would fail as I had a lot of opposition to my activism. My parents were very apathetic to my situation to the point they’d put the phone down on me when I spoke of being suicidal and relatives caring for the elderly relative I was trying to see started gatekeeping my relationship with her to the point they even stopped us speaking on the phone. They did this as a behavioural technique to get me to face my fear of being body scanned. But I also feared never seeing my relative again. All this caused me to have a nervous breakdown during which I was self-harming and suicidal. I couldn’t talk to anyone about this for fear of the authorities being called and being strip-searched whilst under section. Because of my breakdown I was unable to campaign — I didn’t have the energy and felt more unsafe than ever which made me unable to take the abuse I’d taken for years just for expressing my needs.
In 2018, I found another activist and this time we got a lot further. The activist managed to get me a meeting with officials at Manchester Airport with an advocate the following summer. At the meeting, a security official demonstrated the pat-down which I could have as an alternative to the body scanner and that was fine for me. The officials recognised I was a genuine traveller and granted me the reasonable adjustment I needed to be able to access air travel. But it took nearly ten years for me to get the adjustment because of the hate campaign which made me believe I’d get into trouble if I asked legitimate questions and tried to advocate for my needs. The activist assisting me with this then wrote to Mumbai and Delhi Airports but they never responded so I was still unable to make the trip. I then contacted an autistic advocate who suggested I contact the Indian Embassy and spoke on national media about my situation. I felt a new sense of hope. But in September 2020 came the news I’d been fearing for years. The elderly relative I was trying to see died without me getting to see her.
For many years people said to me that if I didn’t like invasive security procedures I just shouldn’t fly — they expected me to go without accessing air travel, a service many take for granted and seeing my relative ever again. But when covid struck these same people didn’t like not being able to see their relatives for a few months even when they were unlikely to die in that time and they didn’t like not being able to travel abroad on a whim. Having said for years that I needed to forego my civil liberties because they feared granting me reasonable adjustments was a safety risk they didn’t like being asked to stay at home for a few months to stop a deadly virus from killing people. I’d always known they see me as a lesser person who is less deserving of the rights and liberties they take for granted but now I was seeing that whilst they never cared about civil liberties, that all changed when it was theirs at stake. When covid vaccines were rolled out a lot of people were concerned about being forced to have them and used the slogan “My body, my choice”, a slogan also used by those supporting access to abortion. These are controversial issues for another discussion but I feel the slogan “My body, my choice” should extend to a person’s choice over who sees their body.
One of the most hurtful things people would say to me was that if I loved my relative I’d put myself through what they considered the “discomfort” of invasive security procedures. Many people thought my not being able to do this was a “choice” I was making and that I chose not to see the relative. Had it been a choice I’d have made the trip years ago. I used to think I’d end my life if my relative died before I was able to see her. And I think I would have had it not been for the many supportive friends I’d made who believe in the social model as opposed to the medical model. I’d anticipated the day my relative died for many years. I felt certain it was going to be before I got the chance to see her again and I was right about that. I also anticipated people telling me that it was my own fault I didn’t get to see her again as so many people had when she was alive. I had good reason to believe that but fortunately that’s not what happened. I received so many supportive comments and messages and my friends were there for me a lot when she died. The fact there were people helping me get to India at the end and the fact that Manchester Airport was able to make the adjustments I needed to access air travel showed me that there were people out there who recognised that I deserved to have my needs met and that I didn’t deserve the abuse and hate I received trying to get them met. This got me through the past two years and is still of great comfort.
One thing I found was that so many people treated me as if my need for bodily privacy was the worst thing about me. They considered me mentally unstable just for having personal boundaries. I found myself believing I was the only person who felt that way and still don’t know of anyone else who’s been cut off from family because they’ve been unable to access air travel for reasons like mine. There must be people like me who’ve been silenced and nobody knows about their situations just like nobody knew or cared about mine. Whilst it’s too late for me to see my relative again there may be others in a situation like mine. It may not be too late for them. There should be more support for people who have lesser understood access needs and somewhere for them to go. I’ve always really struggled accessing advocacy because multiple people led me to believe nobody would help me because there was a common consensus that my need for adjustments was part of a sickness and that the only way for me to see my relative was to “cure” myself of that “sickness”. As a result my human right to a family life — and basic humanity for that matter — was contingent on giving up core parts of myself and basically becoming someone else.
Looking back I see I had more rights than I thought I had. But people’s rights are no good to them if they don’t know they have them. People are often told they need to stand up for their rights. But many people are led to believe they have fewer rights than they actually do. They’re often fed misinformation about their rights by their limited sources of information. I was led to believe I had no right to get my needs met by family, friends, strangers online, the media and politicians. Had I known my rights I could have secured the reasonable adjustments I needed to fly many years earlier in the UK which would have bought me time to get them met in India, meaning I could have seen my relative, not just once but a few times before she died. And because my mental health would have improved earlier I’d have been able to do a lot more in life that I’ve been unable to do. I’m still unaware of my rights in other areas and am excluded from other areas of society. But if there was more access to advocacy including people acting on my behalf where I’m unable to do so I’d feel a lot more confident in asking the questions I need to in order to request reasonable adjustments where required and access society in the way so many people take for granted.
My name is Mia. I’m a 40-year-old autistic transwoman. I was born in the UK, my mother’s British and my father’s Indian. I’ve struggled to negotiate many systems in life because we live in a very neurotypical society that doesn’t take into account the needs of neurodiverse people.
© The Author(s) 2023. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/pages/standard-publication-reuse-rights)