Sept. 11 marked the moment in American history when the government expanded its surveillance power beyond the scope of what Americans had ever experienced. Since then, we have seen technology and procedural systems developed that affect people disproportionately because of their gender, race and ethnicity. Muslim individuals, along with other racial and ethnic minorities, are overtly profiled, harassed and unable to travel freely. The impact of these is harrowing when at the intersections of these identities.
Our new systems of hyper-surveillance often lead to traumatic experiences for millions of transgender Americans who are forced to walk through body scanners yearly while a TSA agent guesses their gender. The agent must select either pink or blue buttons, following which, the body scan is algorithmically compared to two binary models: one based on a cisgender man with male genitalia and without disabilities, another based on a cisgender woman with breasts and female genitalia and without disabilities. If the individual does not match up with the models, they can expect a “grueling and often humiliating and traumatizing ordeal.” A ProPublica investigation found that many transgender travelers are subject to misgendering, invasive screenings and unwarranted exposure of body parts. Trans travelers have called for a change in policy but have seen little reform.
Black women have been raising alarms about how TSA scanners have repeatedly flagged hair as “suspicious.” The ACLU reports that racial profiling has dramatically increased since 9/11. This insidious culture has even led to TSA agents creating racist displays at airports. This discrimination has been baked into algorithms by humans who either were looking to racially profile after 9/11 or caught a wide swath of diverse people who don’t fit the narrow, fear-based definitions created in the wake of the attacks.
The American police state has become a self-reinforcing loop that preys on those who are not in positions of authority. Diversity, identity and expression get corralled into myopic categorizations decided by those in positions of power. These categories then are deemed a threat because they are different.
Profiling identity fosters unfounded alarm. The impact of this fearmongering can be seen across the country. When reporting identity — and having that data be meaningfully collected — we are not a United States. This can be seen among state and federal identity documents and how hospitals and clinics report sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex traits. For many, the inability to have their identity reflected properly on a driver's license is not only a health issue but also limits their own freedom, liberty, and the ability to vote. While some states and recent moves by the federal government have expanded the right to self-identify, many across the country still struggle. For these people, policies that are decided without gender-diverse individuals at the table limit their ability to travel by car or plane, to participate in democracy, and leads to increased discrimination. While these systems may seem discreet, they can impact the ability of many to receive safe housing or other basic social needs. When synchronized they create an almost impenetrable system of exclusion and oppression.
For many trans and gender-diverse Americans, along with other minoritized populations, the narrowing of identity forced by the government bakes fear into daily life. Many minoritized individuals, including trans and gender-diverse folks, fear even being counted by the government. Unfortunately, going uncounted means a lack of health data and research. It becomes much more difficult, if not impossible, to be able to study the impact of diseases like COVID-19 within our communities. And not being counted on a federal level can often mean a lack of resource distribution to the communities that need it most.
The founders endeavored to create a more perfect union. This ideal is one that not only welcomes all individuals to the table but guarantees the freedom and liberty for individuals to express themselves and to identify authentically. Unfortunately, our current systems continue to make this impossible for many.
After 20 years of the impact of 9/11, we as Americans should reflect on freedom and liberty for all, not just those who own the table and get to write the code. We need to work to rebuild an America based on hope, unity, and compassion, rather than fear. We need to create systems that allow each person to live and be seen authentically. To fulfill a vision of a more perfect union, we must build for inclusion, not exclusion, and welcome our diversity as a core characteristic of what it means to be American.
Dallas Ducar NP is the founding CEO of Transhealth Northampton.