Portland’s nude folk hero strips and tells

By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

John Brennan's impromptu TSA protest landed him in the media spotlight. Photo by Xilia Faye, PQ Monthly

John Brennan’s now-infamous nude protest at the Portland International Airport may have been impromptu, but that doesn’t mean it was a thoughtless act.

The 49-yr-old web development manager flies frequently for business and, as such, is all too familiar with the increasingly invasive antics of the Transportation Security Administration. So, when TSA agents pulled him aside during a routine screening last month, Brennan decided to disrobe.

“After going through a metal detector, and full, invasive pat-down, my clothes tested positive for nitrates,” Brennan says. “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.”

Although he was arrested on charges of indecent exposure, Brennan contends that the nude protest was well within his First Amendment rights and Oregon law. That’s why he pleaded not guilty at a recent court date, even though he could have gotten off with a letter of apology and some community service. Instead, Brennan is pushing for a full trial — the date of which will be set June 8.

Brennan talked to PQ Monthly about why he did it, how people have responded, and what’s next.

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.

PQ: How did the Facebook 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 out more and keep current with my cases. I encourage everyone to spread the word about the page. Lots of likes are good!

PQ: You also go by the name Keystone. Where does that come from?

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 into 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 communitiesm and the world. My nickname provides a reminder of the vast opportunity I have to be a better person.

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 assimilationists, 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.

Read full interview with Brennan here.