By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
You probably saw the 49-year-old Portlander on local and national television news. But did you know that John Brennan — often referred to in the press as the “TSA Stripper” — is one of us? When it comes to nicknames, Brennan prefers “Keystone.” It’s a moniker he uses among his various communities, including the Radical Faeries, that serves as “a reminder of the vast opportunity I have to be a better person,” he says.
The way Brennan sees it, taking off his clothes during an April security screening was one of those opportunities; he simultaneously protested and assisted the Transportation Security Administration. He also believed (and still believes) he was within his rights as an Oregonian to be “nude but not lewd” — to disrobe as a protest rather than for arousal. That’s why he says he’s fighting charges of indecent exposure.
In an interview for the May issue of PQ Monthly, Brennan talked about how it went down, what he’s fighting for, and the Facebook fan group. Here he is in full effect.
PQ Monthly: How did court go on Wednesday? What happens next?
John Brennan: I pled Not Guilty. On June 8, we set a trial date, which is likely to be sometime the following week, June 11-15.
PQ: Why did you decide to fight the charges?
Brennan: I did not do anything wrong.
PQ: When and why did you decide to do the nude protest? What beliefs drove your action?
Brennan: After going through a metal detector, and full, invasive pat-down, my clothes tested positive for nitrates. That’s when I decided I could assist my screening process by removing my clothes and protest the ever-increasing invasiveness of the TSA search process that has been slowly eroding our privacy and right to travel.
PQ: Were you familiar with folks who had done similar, if slightly less naked, protests?
Brennan: No. I vaguely recall hearing of woman getting taken to a mental hospital after something at an airport.
PQ: What kind of treatment where you protesting?
Brennan: I was not protesting my treatment. I was protesting the extent to which my privacy was being invaded by the TSA. When I purchase an airline ticket, I am forced to consent to violations of my privacy under the guise of security.
PQ: Have you engaged in anything bordering on civil disobedience before?
Brennan: I am a politically active citizen. Civil disobedience is in the eye of the beholder.
PQ: Did you expect to get arrested? What would you have done if they hadn’t arrested you?
Brennan: I did not believe that they had any grounds to arrest me, since i was exercising my first amendment rights. I chose to continue my protest despite TSA’s threats to have me arrested and my eventual arrest. If they did not arrest me, I assume I would have just been on my way to San Jose as I had planned when I got up that morning.
PQ: At what point did people start you realize that you were taking off more than your shoes and going all the way?
Brennan: I had already gone through the normal screening process, standing in a special screening area. My shoes, belt and jewelry were already off. I can’t know when people started to realize I was taking my clothes off. My clothes came off pretty quickly.
PQ: How did folks react in the moment? What has the longer-term response been like?
Brennan: TSA advised me to stop taking my clothes off. Once they were off TSA, and later the Port of Portland, asked me to put my clothes back on. Believing I was within my rights as an Oregonian, I chose not to put my clothes back on until I got cold in my cell at the airport.
PQ: Did you ever expect that one act of protest to go viral the way it has? Has it caused you any problems with work or at the airport?
Brennan: I had no idea that this would get so much attention. At the time, I knew I was doing the right thing. Since my free speech action, I’ve flown round-trip with no incident.
PQ: What’s next for you? Will you continue some form of activism around people’s rights at airports?
Brennan: It’s too soon to answer what’s next. As a citizen, I’m concerned on many fronts about our loss of rights. TSA is just one way our system is broken. And I want to emphasize “our.” This government is beholden to us, not the other way around. When Patrick Henry, one of the founders of our country, said, “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”, he was saying his liberties are worth dying for. I’m certainly not saying that everyone who flies should be willing to risk death at the expense of any loss of privacy. I reference the quote to emphasize the importance of our liberties. We should not allow them to be taken with ease. Each part of each liberty should be held dearly, and, if taken away, fought for. My liberty was more important than my modesty. Perhaps I should say, “Give me liberty or give me modesty.”
PQ: You fly pretty frequently — have you run into the TSA agents you stripped for since that day?
Brennan: I made a round-trip to California with the Court’s permission. TSA screened me.
PQ: How did the FB page, “Naked American Hero,” get started? Have you received any fan mail?
Brennan: A friend created the Facebook page Naked American Hero the night of my arrest in a show of support. [It started with a different name.] I’ve been stopped and thanked in the grocery store, at gas stations, and at the airport. As my recognition increases, I find that the amount of support has increased. I’m happy that the Naked American Hero page exists. I like to know everyone I’m friends with on Facebook and don’t allow folks to subscribe to my personal Facebook page. So having the Naked American Hero page allows me to direct folks I don’t know to a place where they can find outmore and keep current with my cases. I encourage everyone to spread the word about the page. Lots of Likes are good!
PQ: What’s it like to share a name with the White House counterterrorism chief? Any relation?
Brennan: There are many John Brennans in the world. I don’t know if we are related, though I doubt it. I see our objectives as the same: safety and protecting the American way of life.
PQ: “Keystone” is your [Radical] Faerie name, right?
Brennan: Keystone is a name I use in several communities. I took it two and a half years ago to remind myself to stay integrated in to my communities. In architecture, a keystone is the center stone of an arch. The keystone balances the forces of the curving arch. Keystones create equilibrium in the structure. A keystone has no use on its own and is integral to the whole. A keystone is also front and center in an arch. That’s a reminder to myself to step up to be of service and to take more leadership in my life, my communities and the world. My nickname provides a reminder of the vast opportunity I have to be a better person.
PQ: What’s your preferred term for nudity? Birthday suit, naked, nude, buff, au naturel, etc.?
Brennan: I don’t have a preferred term. In looking at the various terms, naked feels more judgmental, while nude feels more neutral. Euphemisms, in this case, imply some level of discomfort with our natural state, and I avoid them unless context and style make them more effective.
PQ: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Brennan: As queer folks, we know the power and importance of being “the other” in society. Some of us choose an integrationist approach, assimilating in to the greater culture as much as we want. It’s a choice nonetheless, and a choice that straight folks don’t consciously make. Most of us also enjoy the privilege of passing as “non-other” as it suits our needs, such as “toning it down” for work. Others let their freak flags hang high. Our real power lies in celebrating and using our status as “other” to influence, contribute, and challenge the greater culture as needed. Clown drag, passing drag, butch women, trans folks, the assiminlationist and all the rest of us-whether we are out or not-provide a point of contrast to society at large. Our very being gets people thinking. Through our actions, we can create change. Creating change is bigger than just LGBTQI equality. I’m out to the reporters who’ve been covering my story and the opportunity has come up. I say, “I’m not allowed to get married in this country” when they ask me if I’m married. Yet my story is not about being gay, and it hasn’t come up. Our LGBTQI rights are of fundamental importance, and fighting for them has taken the energy that we might spend using our creativity, perspective, passion, money and brains on even bigger issues. My action is also a reminder to everyone that they can find a form of protest that suit them and take action. Our government works for us, not the corporations. The corporations may have the money, but we have the vote. And as LGBTQI folks, we hold a special place in the government, society, and, in my case, in the TSA screening process.
Erin Rook is a Staff Writer for PQ Monthly. Erin can be reached at email@example.com.