As someone who only transitioned six months ago, Liz Lilly had concerns about her first encounter as a transgender woman with the Transportation Security Agency.
“I knew that there was some chance that traveling while transgender could cause problems. I discovered it was much worse than I expected – that I’d be flagged every time by the TSA, and that my best-case scenario each time is having my genitals and breasts handled.”
Lilly’s experience at Kansas City International Airport is not unique. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, nearly one in five transgender travelers reported having been harassed or disrespected by airport security screeners or other airport workers.
“The thing you need to remember,” Lilly told FlyerTalk, “is that the TSA does not handle any protest of any kind. If they ask you what you are, you smile and say, ‘I’m a transgender woman!’ with pride and say, ‘What can I do to make your job easier?’ The message is: submit.”
The TSA has been under increased scrutiny regarding their policies toward transgender travelers since September, when transgender woman Shadi Petosky was detained for over an hour at Orlando International Airport because of her “anomaly,” a term the TSA used to classify her genitals.
There are no formal regulations regarding the TSA’s use of screening technologies, and they are not required to uphold any standards in how they process travelers. Currently, the agency uses Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines to scan a traveler’s body to detect any objects that may be within or under clothing. Advanced Target Recognition (ATR) software displays the scan results using a generic body outline and small boxes to indicate the locations that require further examination from an agent.
The ATR software is designed to flag body contours that are not typical for a person’s gender. When a passenger is selected for the AIT scan, a TSA agent must manually select the gender of the passenger so that the ATR software can adjust its expectations. Often times, transgender travelers become subject to additional screening procedures – a full-body or localized pat down, which is to be performed by an agent of the same gender that the passenger presents at the checkpoint.
This does not always happen, however, as Lilly recounts. She received a pat down from a male with a female agent present.
“If they have a male search you, the only thing you will get by protesting is a missed flight and possibly a lot of time in a small locked room. You just bear it with pride, make some jokes about it, and go on your way.”
Lilly has taken steps to formally change the legal status of her gender in order to avoid hassles from other agencies.
“This is the list of people and agencies that had no trouble with my gender change and transgender status: My clinic/hospital system, my employer, my insurance companies, banks, utilities, mutual fund providers, mortgage provider, the county civil court system, the county registrar of titles, the county elections board, Minnesota Department of Public Safety [driver’s license], the universities from which I have degrees, the U.S. Social Security department, the IRS, and the U.S. Department of State,” says Lilly.
“This is the list of agencies that have had trouble with my transgender status: the TSA.”
The TSA’s official response to the September incident with Shadi Petosky was that the agents followed the TSA’s strict guidelines during her processing. Democrats in Congress, however, have expressed concerns about that process and in a letter to the TSA administrator, Peter Neffenger, have called for changes to their procedures. “In the days since Ms. Petosky’s story became public,” it reads, “we have heard from numerous members of the transgender community describing harassing and humiliating experiences while going through airport security.”
According to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD 8th District), one of the 32 members of Congress who signed the letter, the TSA has briefed Congress and is currently conducting an investigation into incidents regarding transgender travelers. When asked what steps the TSA could take to improve their screening process for transgender passengers, Rep. Van Hollen told FlyerTalk, “TSA needs to empower travelers by making clear what options are available for transgender individuals to be screened in a discreet manner. They also must provide evidence that agents are being trained to screen transgender individuals in a way that prevents the unfortunate cases we’ve seen recently.”
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Tacoma), who also signed the letter, told FlyerTalk he believes that “it’s a matter of the TSA training their people to understand transgender issues. Training programs specifically for TSA people just to say: here is what a transgender person is and [these are] the variables, so treat them with respect when you encounter them and don’t freak out about it.”
Rep. Smith is confident that the TSA can make the changes that are needed to improve their screening process for transgender passengers, but that “a huge part of it is just getting past the ignorance.” He added that although an additional check may still be necessary, “it would be quick, it would be understood and they would know what they were dealing with and they wouldn’t have to hold somebody up so long that they would miss their flight.”
In an October interview with The Advocate, the TSA announced that agents will “stop describing perceived inconsistencies in a person’s anatomy when going through a body scanner as an ‘anomaly’” and that the Transgender 101 training will be expanded “to provide it more widely to our frontline workforce.”
However, in November, Ashley Harper, a transgender woman and a training supervisor at a mutual funds company in Denver, had an encounter with the TSA during a screening in Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport.
“I got flagged as female and it had marked the area in my genitals as red. I got pulled aside for a pat down and they described it as a ‘mysterious object.’ They knew why I had been flagged after talking to me, but they were still insistent upon the pat down, which of course didn’t find anything. Then they actually had me go aside into their search room where they wanted me to take off the pants I was wearing. I had my underwear on and then it was very obvious what it was they had flagged, and then they said ‘okay you’re fine’ and just let me go.”
Whether this falls under the normal TSA procedures for a pat down is difficult to determine. When referring to pat downs for transgender travelers, the TSA’s website states, “You will not be asked to remove or lift any article of clothing to reveal sensitive body areas.”
Harper’s experience was also compounded by the manner in which the agents spoke to her. “It was interesting to me because I was called miss or ma’am through security until I got flagged, then they didn’t use she, they used they, and went neutral. When they were talking to each other, originally it was ‘we need to take her back.’ After that it changed to them. The moment they realized what was going on I kind of lost my identity.”
As a training supervisor, Harper is familiar with the procedures that her company uses to professionally develop their employees. “Finance is a pretty conservative industry and part of the new-hire training through HR is that they address how to properly talk to coworkers and use their correct pronouns. And that’s done at a financial company where they don’t deal with the general public.”
Harper believes that the TSA is “a government agency that is there to protect us” but adds that additional training for agents regarding how to process transgender travelers “wouldn’t be that big of a change because they have continuing training. Even though I know they would probably still do the pat down, calling me ‘miss’ or ‘she’ the whole time would have made it less alienating.”
Despite numerous requests, the TSA has so far not granted FlyerTalk an interview.
[Lead graphic: Chantel Delulio]