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Traveling While Transgender: Some Still Face Harassment, Humiliation Despite Calls for Change

Traveling While Transgender: Some Still Face Harassment, Humiliation Despite Calls for Change

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.”

Transgender Traveling Pull Quote

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.

TransgenderTraveling Pull Quote

“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.”

Transgender Traveling Pull Quote

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]

View Comments (18)


  1. Himeno

    December 21, 2015 at 9:50 pm

    Easy way to fix a lot of these problems.
    Get rid of the pointless, completely unneeded body scanners.

  2. Liz Lilly

    December 22, 2015 at 11:09 am

    Himeno’s suggestion of eliminating the scanners would benefit everyone, not just transgender people.

  3. tiamsanit

    December 23, 2015 at 4:52 am

    and yes, it also benefit terrorist

  4. DrWeld

    December 23, 2015 at 4:54 am

    @Himeno and @Liz Lilly, this is a sensitive subject, and for both parties is kind of difficult to handle, times are in need for changes to handle new situations everyday, just think about this from an objective perspective, also thinking about the security of others, obviously these security measures have a purpose, first of all lets make something clear, the term “transgender” is wrongly used, as the term describes a person that has changed sexual gender which is impossible, you can only change your cosmetic appearance either by apparel, make up or surgery but no matter what a person do, the DNA will states is either male or female.
    I will describe two distinctive scenarios to better understand this:
    1.- A woman walks through security and the scan shows something that should not be there for a woman, she claims to be a transexual, so the TSA officers starts to have a hard time to decide who is going to pat down this person, there is a 50-50 chance that she/he is telling the truth, so if this is a lie, it could be a woman carrying a pack of cocaine or an explosive device.
    2.- TSA decides to listen to you two and eliminate the pat down and scan, and everyone can carry any concealed dangerous object, either a weapon, an explosive or drugs.
    What scenario will make you more uncomfortable?
    If this situation get worse, pretty soon they will need to start hiring transexuals to pat down the transexuals, and I am not exaggerating, some people are calling for an implementation of a third class of public restrooms for transexuals.


    December 23, 2015 at 4:57 am

    This is so low down in the order of issues we are facing right now in terms of airport security.

  6. zitsky

    December 23, 2015 at 5:44 am

    TSA should not pat down sensitive areas.

  7. lalismom

    December 23, 2015 at 6:17 am

    I’m tired…I read the article, but please explain how getting rid of the scanners would HELP? Wouldn’t that lead to more physical searches? Isn’t it more a matter of educating the ignorant at the TSA, and identifying as the correct gender?

    In addition, I suspect there are issues at MCO. Higher levels of concern to start, re travelers…but as a case in point, my elder parents were traveling in the past few weeks. My mother, it became apparent with the stress of travel, is in the beginning stages of dementia. She neglected to keep her drivers license in her wallet, a fact not known until after the hours drive to the airport for departure (CAK). The ticket agent, observing the episode, had no issues with my 93 year old mother using her citibank visa with picture as ID. Dad (age 98) also accompanied. Both, thank goodness are physically able to walk, so no wheelchairs are needed. Both my sister and I got nonpassenger escort passes. They also received preboard due to disability status. (age and hearing). BUT, at MCO my mother was subjected (no doubt due to lack of state issued ID) to a full body frisking. My sister regrets not having taped it, but then who expects it? I realize that would be a great way for someone to do harm by cover of an elder, but I think a little common sense could have prevailed. I mean, if you’re over 70 or something you don’t have to take your shoes off any longer. It’s wrong. Just plain wrong.

  8. taina2

    December 23, 2015 at 6:38 am

    We all know the biggest weakness in transportation security is on the air side. The scanners are just another example of failure of bureaucracy and should be dealt with for all.

  9. kmflinkle

    December 23, 2015 at 7:56 am

    “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.”

    TSA, by their own policies are supposed to have someone of the same gender **as you are presenting** perform your patdown, and if it’s not clear they’re supposed to ask.

    As a trans woman who doesn’t want GRS, I opt out from the body scanner. So far the three times I’ve flown singe transitioning I’ve had no issues getting a female officer to complete the pat down. If they insisted on a male officer, I’d request a supervisor.

  10. cornfedcowboy

    December 23, 2015 at 8:03 am

    I wouldn’t blame so much the TSA. Is a transgender woman a woman or a man? I don’t know, how would TSA know. Truly a first world problem.

  11. 110pgl

    December 23, 2015 at 8:39 am

    I don’t think getting rid of the scanners is the solution. Safety is number one. All our other concerns are second. I do not pretend to have a good solution for this, but, clearly the scanners worked as they should… the passenger presented as female and had something in an area that is not part of the female anatomy. Perhaps the scanners can be tied to the boarding pass… and the boarding pass can have some information in it that identifies the passenger as transgender. The scanner would then be automatically configured to the appropriate scan.

    Of course this frustration can also be eliminated (at least domestically) with pre-check. No scanners there.

  12. Liz Lilly

    December 23, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    @DrWeld — The term “transgender” is most definitely being used correctly. It’s well established in law, case law, and medical terminology. Gender can be changed according to the federal and state governments, as well as all major American medical associations. If you don’t agree, take it up with them. Until then, I am legally and medically female.

    As for your scenarios, 1) If the scanners can’t differentiate genitalia from bombs, the scanners are not of much use and everyone should get the pat-downs. 2) From what I’ve read, the TSA is failing to detect things most of the time when tested. Stuff gets through either way. So why bother with the extra time and expense?

    There’s no need to require transgender TSA agents at each station. The TSA just need to learn and use their current procedures.

    The gender-neutral single-occupancy restrooms being advised already exist and are quite common. They’re usually called “Family restrooms” next to typical restrooms, or just “restrooms”, like the ones at your house.

  13. Liz Lilly

    December 23, 2015 at 11:35 pm

    @lalismom – considering the TSA has been failing when tested, the scanners don’t seem to be providing much. So removal would reduce cost and traveler time. As that’s unlikely, a technical change would mostly solve the problem (it seems poor technical design is what causes them to single out trans people for crotch/breast pat downs). Consistent training of TSA agents will be good — there a night and day difference between those who have and those who haven’t. But a technical change doesn’t have to be reinforced, retaught, etc.

    @kmflinkle – in my case the male agent did it before I could object. And I was definitely presenting female. The agent knew I was presenting female as he’d first pressed the “pink” button indicating he saw me as female.

    I’ve not asked for an opt-out pat-down as I’m trying to avoid making people touch me! Also, you may no longer always have that option:

    @cornfedcowboy – TSA agents shouldn’t have to know, and the agents shouldn’t have to guess someone’s gender based on how they look (apparently agents REALLY HATE when they aren’t sure and have to ask or guess). The scanners are supposed to be able to differentiate body parts from bombs, etc. They should be able to do so if a person looks or doesn’t look a particular gender.

    @110pgl – I might do TSA precheck if I have to fly more often (I was eyeing the precheck area longingly at MCI). But trans people shouldn’t HAVE to, especially if not frequent air travelers.

  14. weero


    December 25, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    “This is the list of agencies that have had trouble with my transgender status”
    I see zero support for this claim. This particular contributor has some issues with the TSA, not the TSA with them.

    That the scanners pick up deviations from what they expect to see in a male/female pattern speaks for the fact that they are indeed working properly. They will flag implants, weapons, pockets of soft materials such as explosives or genitals ,,, not a single reason to discontinue their use.

    How the situation is handled once implants, explosives, or genitals are detected that is political matter. I hope that what TSA agents have to endure, tolerate, and accept will weigh the same as the sensibilities of the minority travellers. They have a right to be protected too.

  15. bobert24

    December 25, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    If you go through a scanner with nonstandard equipment of any kind (electronic, mechanical, biological, or otherwise), you can reasonably expect to be questioned about it.

  16. kei-o-lei

    December 30, 2015 at 5:25 am

    There’s an implicit assumption in some comments that all “anomalies” should be treated in the same way (see DrWeld comments that equate what trans folks experience with a “concealed dangerous object, either a weapon, an explosive or drugs”.

    There are many people who have “anomalies”: the mastectomy patient with implants; the Sihk with turban; the transwoman with male genitals; the old guy with a hip replacement; the veteran with metal plates in bone. The challenge for TSA managers is to train TSA staff is to use their technology, data and behavior screening to differentiate between the “anomalies” that trigger heightened security and those that don’t.

    I get questioned about my hip replacements; but trans folks I know are treated quite differently for their “anomalies” than I am . . . it’s old fashioned ignorance and prejudice at work, and TSA managers have a responsibility to train their staff to be as respectful to trans folks as they are to old guys with new hips.

  17. Liz Lilly

    January 4, 2016 at 8:52 am

    @weero – The TSA has a policy that singles out one group for mandatory genital pat-downs, and they’re unable to even follow those procedures properly. So I think this validates my claim the TSA has trouble with my status.

    If the machines can differentiate flesh from objects, flesh shouldn’t set off an alarm regardless of what the person LOOKS like. If they can’t differentiate, then every pants/shirt-lump is a potential problem that should be patted down.

    Also I definitely take the TSA agents into account. They HATE having to try to guess people’s gender, and I’m sure they hate unnecessary pat-downs, for more than one reason.

  18. Liz Lilly

    January 4, 2016 at 8:56 am

    @bobert24 None of me is a foreign object, and none of me is non-standard. If the machines can tell a foreign object from a fleshy bit, then let fleshy bits through. If not, then there’s a hole in security and everyone’s fleshy bits should get patted down.

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