News Human Rights

American Airlines Rejects Female Passenger Because Political Pro-Choice T-Shirt is “Inappropriate”

Jodi Jacobson

In a  country where anti-choice protestors are given free rein to harass and threaten women and doctors and parade gruesome doctored photos in every public square, a woman is asked to leave a plane because of a political pro-choice t-shirt.

This article was updated at 12:41 pm, Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012.

Yesterday I attended a meeting of pro-choice colleagues working to ensure women throughout this country get safe, compassionate abortion care. Today, I received an email from one of those colleagues, detailing the ordeal through which she was put by American Airlines on her flights home. They actually forced her to miss her connecting flight and demanded she change her top. The reason? Her politically salient pro-choice t-shirt was offensive to the flight crew.

That sign said: “If I wanted the government in my womb, I’d fuck a senator.”The t-shirt is the now-popularized version of a sign held by Oklahoma state senator Judy McIntyre (D) at a pro-choice rally in early March to protest Oklahoma’s so-called personhood law, which in conferring the rights of a living, breathing person on a fertilized egg denies all rights of personhood of women, full stop.

At the time of the rally, and asked about the sign, State Senator McIntyre “acknowledged that some in Oklahoma, which is overwhelmingly Christian, may find her sign’s language offensive, but she wasn’t much concerned about them.”

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“I would hope they would have that same passion about how offensive it is for the Republican Party of Oklahoma to ramrod, because they have the votes to do so, bills that are offensive to women and take away the rights of women,” she reportedly said.

My colleague, O., of the same mind of many of us in believing that sign says it all, wore a t-shirt with the same message under her shawl and boarded an American Airlines flight home from our meeting.

So what happened? O. writes: 

[O]n the plane of the first leg of my flight home, I spent the majority of [time] sleeping, using my shawl as a blanket. Right before we were set to land the flight attendant from first class approaches me and asks if I had a connecting flight? We were running a bit behind schedule, so I figured I was being asked this to be sure I would make my connecting flight.  She then proceeded to tell me that I needed to speak with the captain before disembarking the plane and that the shirt I was wearing was offensive.

The shirt was gray with the wording, “If I wanted the government in my womb, I’d fuck a senator.” I must also mention that when I boarded the plane, I was one of the first groups to board (did not pass by many folks).  I was wearing my shawl just loosely around my neck and upon sitting down in my seat the lady next to me, who was already seated, praised me for wearing the shirt.

When I was leaving the plane the captain stepped off with me and told me I should not have been allowed to board the plane in DC and needed to change before boarding my next flight. This conversation led to me missing my connecting flight.  I assumed that because I was held up by the captain, they would have called ahead to let the connecting flight know I was in route.  Well, upon my hastened arrival at the gate of the connecting flight, it was discovered that they did indeed call ahead but not to hold the flight, only to tell them I needed to change my shirt. I was given a seat on the next flight and told to change shirts.

Due to the fact that my luggage was checked, changing shirts without spending money wasn’t an option. I consulted a friend with a law background who told me covering with my shawl would suffice. Upon boarding the now rescheduled flight with shawl covering my shirt, my ticket dinged invalid. I was pulled to the side while the gentleman entered some codes into the computer and then told, “it was all good.”  I did finally arrive home to pick up my daughter an hour and a half later than scheduled. 

So let’s review some facts. O. went through security and was stopped for additional screening, but not deemed a “security risk,” and no one at TSA made the slightest mention of her t-shirt. She boarded her first flight, and none of the airline personnel at the gate mentioned her t-shirt. She quietly took her seat, wrapped her shawl around herself, and went to sleep.

When her plane landed the flight attendant confronted her and said she had to speak to the captain. At no point did anyone say quietly, hey… could you keep that covered with your shawl? Could you turn it inside out? We have a policy….

Instead, after the plane landed the flight attendant brought her up front where the captain berated her publicly and made her miss her connecting flight. It turns out when she asked if anyone had complained the answer was: NO, Only the flight attendant!

The captain and flight attendant took it upon themselves to call ahead to the next gate and make them keep her off the next flight, causing her to miss it. Two American Airlines employees decided *after the fact* to make an issue of this of their own accord and, instead of asking discreetly if she could cover her shirt or turn it inside out, she was humiliated in front of other passengers by a captain out of control. Yes, in some way this obviously has to do with profanity, but where does that stop? Is she allowed to walk into Target? Is she allowed to go to CVS?  She was allowed to walk through the airport… If we women all over this country are being fucked over, and we can’t say that, where does that end?

No.. In this country, you see, fundamentalist right-wing male legislators in every state can take away your rights. They can deny you access to contraception, breast exams, Pap smears, and other primary preventive care. They can deny you access to safe emergency contraception and safe medication abortion. They can force any woman in need of a safe abortion to listen to lies about outcomes of the procedure long disproven by medical science and public health professionals. They can mandate that you to listen to religious dogma at crisis pregnancy centers, force you to look at an ultrasound or hear a heartbeat, make you wait 24-, 36-, 72-hours before you can get a safe, legal abortion, just because they feel like it, and just because they feel like it, they can raise the costs of that abortion — in terms of travel, childcare, medical expenses and time — to really shame you good. Moreover, they feel empowered to coerce you into procedures like trans-vaginal ultrasounds, which I maintain is a form of state-sponsored rape.

But protest these laws and the War on Women with a t-shirt that gets right to the point? Let people know the basis of all of it, the people that “want government out of our lives” want to place it directly into our bodies? In a country supposedly founded on freedom of speech and expression, in which protestors can stand outside clinics harassing and threatening women and doctors, and run through every public square with gory doctored photos? A country in which other protestors can stand outside the funerals of gay soldiers killed in duty and scream disgusting insults, and still have their rights protected? 

Oh, no. You can’t do that. You can’t take that message that your body is your own anywhere. Because in the United States today, that is like taking your burqha off under the Taliban. That is “offensive,” “insulting” and “not for public consumption.”

At least according to American Airlines, which apparently has not heard the term freedom of expression.

Let’s be clear: This is a woman who was not a security risk — she got through the gauntlet of DC airport security, which I assure everyone is easily the most rigorous of any in the country — and obviously was not considered a “risk” of any kind, because… she was not. She boarded her plane without incident and went to sleep. It was at the end of her flight that the flight crew decided she should not be able to board the next flight because her t-shirt was offensive. How is it okay for American Airlines to decide what she can wear on her t-shirt or not? I have been on flights with men wearing tatoos that demean women, and t-shirts that advocate violence against women, that demean women, that treat Obama with racist derision… What someone wears on their body is their business. Whether or not you would wear that t-shirt is not the point. It is not for American Airlines to decide what is politically okay or not.

In March, State Senator Judy Mcintyre told the Huffington Post:

“I was so excited about the fact that the women in Oklahoma have finally begun to wake up and fight for their rights. I saw a sea of signs that caught my eye, but this one in particular — I loved its offensive language, because it’s just as offensive for Republicans of Oklahoma to do what they’re doing as it relates to women’s bodies. I don’t apologize for it.”

We don’t apologize for fighting for the freedom of women. We don’t apologize for taking that war into streets, on sidewalks, into legislatures, into airplanes. We don’t apologize for protecting our rights and our bodies and those of every woman in this country.

While there are plenty of people in power right now that owe women of the United States an apology, American Airlines owes a huge — and public– apology to O. 

Tell them so.

News Human Rights

Airfare Services Available to Pulse Shooting Victims Present Challenges for Undocumented People

Tina Vasquez

Undocumented people can board commercial airlines for flights within the United States, but if they live outside of Washington, D.C. or the 12 states that provide undocumented people with IDs accepted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), they must obtain a foreign passport from their country of origin’s consulate.

In the days since the Pulse nightclub shooting that left 49 people dead and more than 50 injured, advocacy organizations and corporations have taken steps to provide services to the attack’s victims and survivors, along with their families. Some of those services, however, are not without hurdles for undocumented people affected by the tragedy.

Equality Florida, an Orlando, Florida-based LGBTQ advocacy organization, is working with the National Center for Victims of Crime to raise money for the National Compassion Fund, which reports that 100 percent of the proceeds will go to survivors and victims. Those in need of funds must fill out an online form.

Part of the challenge has been making those affected by the tragedy aware of how they can obtain victim relief funds and help with funeral services, or receive counseling and legal services, according to Ida Eskamani, Equality Florida’s development officer for North and Central Florida. The organization is disseminating information about these resources online in both English and Spanish.

JetBlue Airways has been offering free flights to and from Orlando for immediate family members who need to attend funerals or be with their injured loved ones. Survivors and family members can contact 1-800-JETBLUE for more information.

In addition to providing free flights to immediate family members of survivors, United Airlines is waiving all costs for the transportation of remains. In order to qualify for flights or the repatriation of a loved one’s body, family members must fill out forms provided by United Airlines that ask for basic contact information, the victim’s name, and their relationship.

A spokesperson from United Airlines told Rewire that the airline has provided similar services to families affected by other tragedies, dating back to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. The airline doesn’t typically promote it, she said, because it’s not about publicity, but rather “doing the right thing and assisting families in a tangible way.”

Other organizations are making their services available to affected families. On Friday, the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Central and South Florida chapters partnered with Immigration Equality to launch “Immigrant Action Orlando,” which includes a hotline number community members can call. According to a press release, the project was created as a way of helping the many community members who have come forward since the shooting asking for help on immigration matters.

Sunday’s shooting hit Orlando’s immigrant community particularly hard, and families are struggling with the costs of repatriating bodies. Jorge Rivas and Rafa Fernandez De Castro of Fusion reported Monday that several of the victims were undocumented, including Juan Chavez-Martinez, whose family is currently fundraising online to repatriate his body and hold his funeral in Mexico, where his family is based. JetBlue is offering free flights to undocumented community members and Eskamani confirmed with Rewire that United Airlines is also offering flights and transferring remains regardless of citizenship status.

“These are unique circumstances because the Pulse shooting has impacted vulnerable communities who already live in fear, communities who have not been immune to hate,” Eskamani said. “This primarily impacted the Latino community and many who were undocumented, whether they were victims or family members.”

As Rewire reported Wednesday, undocumented survivors and the undocumented family members of victims could qualify for U visas, set aside for victims of violent crimes who are willing to help law enforcement with the investigation. But in the state of Florida, the coverage for hospital care for an undocumented victim is limited. Traveling to Orlando from within the United States can also prove to be difficult for undocumented people.

Undocumented individuals can board commercial airlines for flights within the United States, but if they live outside of Washington, D.C. or the 12 states that provide undocumented people with IDs accepted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), they must obtain a foreign passport from their country of origin’s consulate. Without a passport, they cannot travel by plane to the consulate, which may be located across their state or across the country. Funerals happening outside of the United States are likely off-limits for undocumented family members, even those with foreign passports. In most cases, traveling abroad will result in not being able to re-enter the United States.

For undocumented family members seeking to attend funerals within U.S. territories, immigration law professor Allan Wernick told Rewire there is good news: Many consulates have an emergency process in place and will be empathetic to the circumstances surrounding the Pulse nightclub shooting, and will likely do what they can to hasten the process. But, ultimately, the length of time it takes to obtain a passport depends on the country. Wernick recommends checking with the consulate for specific information about emergency processes and any documentation needed to expedite the process.

Wernick suggests undocumented family members who are able to obtain passports to attend a funeral and who are flying for the first time not be afraid if their undocumented status comes to the attention of the TSA.

“I double dare any TSA or immigration officer to hassle somebody who is suffering this tragedy,” the professor told Rewire. “If they were a member of my family who only had a passport from their country of origin, I would tell them not to worry about flying to attend the funeral.”

Though the professor could not guarantee the successful return of undocumented people taking advantage of these opportunities, he said the chances of an issue arising are slim, “if, for no other reason, TSA or ICE won’t want the bad publicity of hassling the family members of those injured or killed in the shooting.”

Eskamani said the challenges facing immigrant and undocumented communities after the shooting may seem overwhelming, but organizations like hers—and the greater Orlando area—are committed to serving the victims, survivors, and their families.

“As a whole, I believe people are approaching this with love and compassion,” the development officer and Orlando native told Rewire. “We’re very aware that the communities impacted in this shooting are already so vulnerable, but we’re doing whatever we can to lift up those voices, connect these communities, and make some good out of this horrific hate crime.”

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

‘Shrill’: Memoir Combats Fat-Shaming Without Sideshow Sensationalism

Lesley Kinzel

Lindy West's life in a fat body is often mentioned and occasionally center stage in her memoir. But her book is also about lots of other things: her family, her work, her passions, her reproductive organs, her harassers, her relationships, and her marriage.

I’ve spent the past two days helping to coordinate a group vacation planned with my husband’s family. The most challenging portion of the whole ordeal has been trying to figure out airfare: Flying while fat, as I am, is a complicated matter tangled up in anxieties, seat preferences, and negative associations with certain airlines. It’s difficult to explain how fraught getting on a plane can be to people who take the process for granted.

It would have been easier to simply hand my husband’s whole family copies of Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, the sharp and clever new memoir from writer and feminist Lindy West. In one chapter, “The Day I Didn’t Fit,” West tackles a particularly negative air travel experience of her own and recalls some of the in-flight microaggressions that many fat people will readily recognize. But that’s not all. West goes on to discuss the reactions of the readers with whom she initially shared the story as a writer at Jezebel—many of whom instantly took the side of the rude passenger. She then had to negotiate this commenter-fueled gaslighting of her own personal experience.

This is an example of what makes Shrill great and what it shares with many other indelible memoirs. West does not stop at telling her story, which she brilliantly does—sometimes with sparkling humor, sometimes heart-shattering pathos. Rather, West is always going deeper, investigating and unpacking her own feelings and perspectives, and taking nothing for granted. It is a tremendous act of bravado to write a memoir at all, and so those who dare to do it well must necessarily be looking both inward and outward with a pretty hard gaze.

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I first noticed Lindy West when her essay, “Hello, I Am Fat,” was published in Seattle’s The Stranger in 2011. Written as a result of an aborted private effort to confront her then-boss, Dan Savage, about his frequent negative comments about fat people, “Hello, I Am Fat” set fire to the internet in a way that much of the existing writing on the subject had yet to do. The essay initially stood out to me because I was surprised I hadn’t heard of her before, as I was, at the time, extremely involved in fat activist communities. It also demonstrated such an incisive and smart perspective on the subject, it was difficult to believe it hadn’t been written by someone with a lot of prior exposure to this particular social justice movement.

But she hadn’t. As explained in Shrill, while West had begun to explore the possibility that her body mass index might not be a reflection of her worth as a human being, she was still in the nascent stages of acceptance when this event occurred; she had rarely (if ever) written publicly on body politics. Indeed, it was Savage’s sustained one-man anti-obesity campaign itself that provided the catalyst for West to really raise her voice on this issue: “Something lurched awake inside of me. They talk to you that way until you ‘come out’ as fat. They talk to you that way until you make them stop.”

In Shrill, though, West talks about finding her voice as a writer and her place as an activist, and she includes chapters about her early introduction to comedy and the difficult prospect of creating actually funny, nondestructive rape jokes. This then leads into the monumental backlash to West’s attempts to create a conversation around the damage done by thoughtless “humor” that relies on mocking victims of sexual assault for its punch line.

Much of Shrill is aimed squarely at recounting and analyzing West’s battles with her detractors, both in real life and online. The details of many of these episodes are already public, as writing personal essays for the internet while also being an outspoken feminist has a way of making every conflict a popular spectacle before an audience of eager hecklers. Besides the “Hello, I Am Fat” essay and its deeper context as an effort to call out her own boss, Shrill also tackles the wealth of social media harassment West has endured, along with the dedication of internet trolls, and the anonymous—and often consequence-free—bloodbath of the Jezebel comment section. In every story of West’s efforts to do her job, her persistent (and often monomaniacal) adversaries loom around the edges like a horde of shadowy keyboard-hunching Nazgul who feed on emotional pain, impostor syndrome, and second guessing.

Still, remarkably, in a chapter documenting her experience with one troll who impersonated her dead father, West states that “Internet trolls are not, in fact, monsters. They are human beings who have lost their way.” Paired with the intense and focused harassment West recounts enduring, this statement is impossible to easily accept.

For me, however, Shrill‘s brightest moments come in its final third, most particularly in a trio of chapters chronicling the loss of West’s father in the midst of her disintegrating relationship (and subsequent reunion) with the man who would later become her husband. The writing in these chapters is not of the same hilariously funny, animated approach that West is probably best known for; it is instead almost uncomfortably intimate and visceral. But these are the chapters that have stuck with me most keenly, as West explains the failure of her partnership and the loss of her parent with a wisdom and a self-awareness that is just extraordinary. The raw candor in these chapters is a balm to those readers who may need to read such experiences to feel less alone, and an inspiration to those who want to be more honest with themselves and their feelings.

If Shrill has a downfall, it’s that the organization occasionally feels uneven. Some chapters move chronologically through experiences in a neat line while others stand completely on their own, and the thematic intention behind their order isn’t always clear. Still, this minor detail wasn’t enough to stop me from reading the whole book in two evenings and enjoying it immensely.

By the end of West’s retelling of the lead-up and aftermath of writing “Hello, I Am Fat,” she notes that her now-former boss has changed his tune when writing about body image. West recounts: “Whether I had anything to do with it or not, he writes about fat people differently now. When someone asks him for advice about body image, he reaches out to a fat person (sometimes me) for input. When fat people would make an easy punch line, he doesn’t take it.” Having read Shrill, I don’t think there’s any doubt that West was a powerful influence in this particular situation, because she is a powerful force in general. It is my sense that simply knowing and working with Lindy West would be enough to change a person, which is why her book is so important. For those of us without this privilege, we can at least have Shrill.

In a world in which memoirs by fat women are typically packaged and sold as being chiefly about fatness—a practice that can be positive in the sense of giving fat women a clearly marked place on bookstore shelves, but also negative when it occasionally has a ring of sideshow-sensationalism about it—Shrill is different. West’s life in a fat body is often mentioned and occasionally center stage, but her book is also about lots of other things: about her family, her work, her passions, her reproductive organs, her harassers, her relationships, and her marriage. Conventional wisdom holds that being fat eclipses every other part of a woman’s life, including her chances at happiness. Fat women are told that they cannot travel, wear nice clothes, fall in love, be loved back, get their dream job, or even simply stand up for themselves until they cease to be fat. Fat women learn early and often that they are worth less than thin women; as West puts it, fat women don’t “count.” And as a result, many fat women believe that their life must be put on hold until they achieve their ideal body.

West’s approach defies that. As Shrill demonstrates, growing up and living in a socially unacceptable body has a clear influence on one’s experience, but it doesn’t mean life stands still.