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Transgender Travelers and New TSA Policies

Note from Autumn: The National Center For Transgender Equality (NCTE) has come out with a resource discussing TSA procedures relating to trans people. I’ve had a personal experience with a the policy on the way back to San Diego from the GetEQUAL direct actions in Washington DC.

On my return flights from DC to San Diego, I was subject to a full body scan by a full body scanner, and the a full body pat down. I didn’t tell the female TSA officer who searched me that I was transgender because I didn’t want to be searched by a male, and I didn’t know the policy for the search of trans people. Basically, I was waiting for her fingers to probe my crotch and find a ‘package’ of a different sort, but that didn’t happen. Having had federal officers of the law previously refer to me as an ‘impersonator,’ ‘it’ and a ‘shim,’ I actually expected that if an officer found my ‘package’ of a different sort, I would have been subject to unwanted, unprofessional behavior. The officer didn’t find my ‘package,’ and didn’t subject me to verbal harassment — this time.

The three prongs of behavior that rise to the level of sexual harassment are that 1.) the behavior happens in the workplace, 2.) the behavior involves sex, and 3.) the behavior is unwanted behavior. If a TSA screener were to use an antitransgender pejorative after finding a ‘package’ or breast forms on at transgender woman, or after not finding a ‘package’ on a transgender man — or finding a silicone ‘package’ or breasts on a transgender man — then the behavior would qualify as sexual harassment.

The chances of sexual harassment happening to transgender people at the hands of TSA officers is increased because the TSA doesn’t require training for its officers regarding sensitivity to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Even though it’s well known that there are transgender people in American society, the TSA doesn’t train their officers on how to behave if they find one in the course of screening passengers.

I asked the ACLU’s Massachusetts’ chapter on twitter what the TSA policy is for transgender passengers facing the full body scan and the full body search, and they didn’t know — they were going to look into it. NCTE has filled out some details, which include the right to be searched by someone of the same gender that a trans person identifies as.

The concern I have for early transitioning trans people is the use of prosthetics — including padded, underwire bras and breast forms for trans women, and packing prosthetics for trans men — are going to raise red flags on trans people. Already we’ve heard stories in mainstream media of women who’ve had mastectomies, and wearing breast forms, being subject to embarrassing searches around their breasts — one woman was reported to have had to pull out a breast form a show it to a TSA officer. One man had the seal to his urostomy bag broken by a TSA officer conducting a search, so urine soaked his shirt and pants. This, to me, doesn’t show that TSA officers are sensitive to the needs of minority populations that use prostetics and medical devices, so this doesn’t seem to me to bode well for trans people who just want to be left alone when we travel.

So, as I fly to accomplish direct actions and go to conferences, and then I face more scans and/or more physical searches by TSA officers into the future, I feel that it’s just a matter of time until on one of these flights I experience sexual harassment because of my ‘package.’ Should I be sexually harassed, I will respond with a formal complaint because I’m out, I’m proud, and I won’t stand for having my humanity diminished by officers of the law who are supposed to be protecting me. But, that I’m actually mentally preparing myself for expected bad behavior speaks to how unprotected I actually feel, and probably actually am, from the actions of federal officers of the law.

Below is a post by jonpincus, regarding the NCTE resource on travel by trans people — especially regarding TSA searches of trans people related to air travel.


The National Center For Transgender Equality (NCTE) has some great resources on how the new "naked scanners" and enhanced patdowns affect transgender travelers — and just as importantly, what your rights are.  A lot of what’s here applies to everybody, for example:

First, it is important that you KNOW YOUR RIGHTS. Even if TSA personnel are not always familiar with travelers' rights, such as the right to decline a full-body scan, you should know them. You may need to politely inform the officer of your rights and choices.

Second, calmly and clearly expressing your choices is very important. This makes it easier for the TSA agents to understand what your needs are and may help you get through the checkpoint more quickly.

And there are also some vital transgender-specific bullet points, including these:

  • You have the right to have manual search procedures performed by an officer who is of the same gender as the gender you are currently presenting yourself as. This does not depend on the gender listed on your ID, or on any other factor. If TSA officials are unsure who should pat you down, ask to speak to a supervisor and calmly insist on the appropriate officer.
  • You should not be subjected to additional screening or inquiry because of any discrepancy between a gender marker on an ID and your appearance. As long as your ID has a recognizable picture of you on it, with your legal name and birth date, it should not cause any problem.

There’s a lot more, too, so check it out.  And they also have a very clear 4-page PDF guide to whole-body imaging, covering some of the same ground and providing more background.  



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