Secure Flight program could make it harder to fly while trans

On August 15 the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rolled out the latest phase of their Secure Flight program which requires passengers to provide their full name, birth date, and gender when booking tickets. Members of the transgender community are justifiably concerned about the problems this will create.
Many trans individuals do not have identification that matches their presentation or the name they regularly use. Others have IDs with conflicting information. The Advocate asked the TSA how trans folks should handle these situations and got some very un-helpful advice:

TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird told Advocate.com on Thursday that transgender travelers who are purchasing tickets should declare “the gender that they were at the time that they booked their flight.”

OK, so that’s a pretty terrible quote. A person’s gender is the gender they identify as. I’m sure Baird means we should use the gender on our legal forms of identification, though. Which does nothing to deal with potential problems that could arise when that gender does not match how we are presenting.
Kristina Wertz of the Transgender Law Center offered a much more realistic view of what trans folks will have to deal with:

“A lot of transgender people don’t have documents” that match up with how they currently identify, she said. “There are always troubles that arise when dealing with documents. People are sometimes forced to disclose their transgender status in a situation where they may not want to.”


The National Center for Transgender Equality has released a FAQ about the impact of the Secure Flight program on trans folk. It contains some disturbing information about how the new rules will be implemented and the potential for outing trans folk or creating barriers to flying:

TSA requires that the booking agents, airlines, travel agents, or any other person handling travel data for flight passengers collect full legal name, date of birth, and gender for each passenger. TSA does not collect this information directly. While TSA has strict federal procedures for the handling of private information once that information is provided to TSA there is no restriction on third-party use of collected data. As such, airlines, travel agents, and other trip organizers may use the information as they desire. They may choose to simply disregard the information, save it in a database, or make use of it in some way. This will make it harder for anyone who flies pre-transition or during transition to keep their transgender identity private in the future.
Also, gender information may be incorrectly categorized in the first place, leaving potential documentation inconsistencies and hassles at the airport. This is especially true in any instance in which the passenger does not fill out the documentation themselves (such as when they are booking a flight in person or though a travel agent). In these situations, the non-passenger booking the flight on behalf of the passenger is unlikely to actually ask which gender marker should be placed on the form. Instead, they are likely to make an independent assessment of the appropriate gender marker based on their own perception of the passenger’s gender expression, name, or voice. Some airlines will also retain information you’ve input in the past and auto-fill certain categories when booking flights (such as through a frequent flyer account), which may then auto-fill incorrect information. Frequent flyer program participation may be impacted if the name on your program enrollment differs from the information you use to book your tickets.

The TSA’s stated reason for requiring this information is to decrease the number of false positives for passengers with names similar to those on the No-Fly list. The ACLU has argued that the No-Fly list is unconstitutional in the first place. Individuals with common Muslim names have been detained, as in the recent case of Shah Rukh Khan. Now this attempt to fix a system that is fatally flawed will increase the targeting of another group of people who too often experience unjustified policing.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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Join the Conversation

  • cattrack2

    Jos–Its hard to tell if you’re objecting to the Secure Flyer program itself, or if you’re objecting to requesting gender as part of the validation process (since you raise the constitutionality of the program). Also, what’s an alternative suggestion? Perhaps creating a category for transgender people?
    Screening flyers against the biographical information of known terrorists seems like a worthwhile enterprise if you can do so accurately. This appears to be a step toward improving its well documented inaccuracy…

  • Anacas

    Do you seriously think there are a lot of cases where two people have the same name and birthdate but different genders, such that gender is useful and necessary for disambiguating? Especially when gender (especially as recorded on legal documents) isn’t always stable over a person’s lifetime? Gender doesn’t belong on IDs, period. It certainly doesn’t belong on place tickets.
    The whole thing is a disaster. Too many false positives harming too many people, and now putting trans people with incorrect or inconsistent documentation in an impossible position.

  • johanna in dairyland

    It’s funny how I don’t feel any safer flying now that TSA knows, or thinks it knows, the gender of each ticketed passenger.

  • fatima

    i think this highlights the intersections between anti-immigrant hostility and transphobia really well.

  • hfs

    Forgive the question, but would it not be possible for trans individuals to fix their documentation so it is consistent (with either an M or an F) across the board, regardless of what they are currently presenting?
    Then you could work around this by flying in a sweatshirt and jeans or something.

  • cheerwine

    Possible with the proper financial resources, depending on the state that one was born in and/or lives in currently, yes.
    One should not have to, and may not wish to for a variety of reasons. A sweatshirt and jeans will not often cover one’s gender presentation enough to avoid raised eyebrows at airport security.
    (sorry if this double-posts, my computer is being weird)

  • Former Jose

    A sweatshirt and jeans won’t cover, say, a trans man’s BEARD. And yeah, as cheerwine said, it’s not always easy to change documentation.
    But, really, even beyond all that–the solution isn’t to force trans people to cower and cringe and contort ourselves in all sorts of ways to appease cis people. It’s to change transphobic policies.

  • FilthyGrandeur

    i definitely agree. why does this matter exactly?

  • FilthyGrandeur

    this is ridiculous. this policy would open the door to harassment and violence by outing transgender passengers. next thing you know, they’ll want a freakin photo.

  • cattrack2

    Pat, Shawn, Sam, Nick, Bobby, Chris…
    In a world of 6B people and 300M Americans do I think gender might clear up some confusion about someone’s identity? Well sure I do. I mean, that’s why we have pictures on ID’s, to identify people.
    The only question is if its worth the cost to the trans community to do so & if there are better alternatives. That’s why I was asking the friggin question…

  • Pantheon

    Doesn’t your passport already have all this info? So you already need to give it when flying. I guess if you fly within the country you don’t need a passport but you still need some sort of ID like a Driver’s Licence, so then they would know your name and gender from that. One way or another you already have to give the airline your legal name and info, don’t you?
    I mean, I can see how having to give your gender could be a problem for some people, but I don’t see how this program is different from the ID info I’ve always had to present when flying.

  • Anacas

    For gender or sex to be a useful disambiguator we’d have to have consistent ways of documenting them and those records would have to be stable over a lifetime. Neither of those is true and neither should be true. When some people have a driver’s license with an F and a passport with an M (and vice versa), when there are people always perceived as men who are women according to government records (and vice versa), when there are people whose genders are read so inconsistently that they get chased out of both bathrooms, when there are people who get called sir when they board the plane and ma’am at the arrivals gate–how is gender or sex a useful identifying characteristic?

  • Anacas

    If you’re trans and want consistent documentation in the gender you identify/present as, there’s a good chance you’ll be up shit creek without a paddle. Requirements for changing gender on different forms of ID vary tremendously from place to place in the US. If you haven’t had any transition-related surgery (whether because you don’t want to or because of access issues), you might be able to change your driver’s license but won’t be able to change the gender on a US passport because the federal government requires “sexual reassignment surgery” (a very ambiguous term) to do that. Or if you’ve had transition-related surgery and the federal government’s accepted it as SRS and let you change your passport, but your state specifically requires a procedure you haven’t had in order to change a driver’s license. Or if you don’t meet the requirements to change any of your IDs, and there’s a mismatch between how your gender is perceived and the M or F on your ID.
    All of those mismatch situations can be dangerous for trans people. It’s easy for you to say “oh, just keep all your IDs consistent and travel in sweats.” It’s not easy or safe to actually live in that governmentally created grey area.

  • eastsidekate

    I can see how having to give your gender could be a problem for some people.
    and this only impacts those people, so NBD, right?

  • Genevieve PlusCourageuse

    The majority of the names you list are nicknames whose full name is different depending on the person’s gender, and most people who I know tend to use their full names on plane tickets, thus alleviating this particular argument. Having gender on plane tickets would create a ton of problems for transgendered people and wouldn’t solve the problem they’re trying to solve. Bad idea.

  • Genevieve PlusCourageuse

    Yep, Pantheon, you’re right: this wouldn’t hurt the vast majority of cisgendered people at all. For us, there’s no problem in showing multiple forms of ID, because we’re always the same person with the same gender and the same name, and if the name doesn’t match it’s probably because we got married and changed our name then, and it’s all well and good and accepted by everyone. The world is a very happy place for us cisgendered folks.
    But that doesn’t mean there’s not a significant segment of our population who this would negatively affect. Their rights and safety deserve to be protected as much as yours and mine already are.

  • Pantheon

    Did you even read my post? My question was how is this a NEW program, since they ALREADY ask for multiple forms of ID. As I said, I can see how giving ID’s with a gender box on them could be a problem, but my point was that they already do that.
    So what I’m asking is why is this post presenting this as a new issue, rather than saying that its an old tradition that needs to be changed? There must be something new and different about this rule, but I’m not seeing what it is.

  • Pantheon

    Um… no. Where did you get that? Defensive much?
    If you read my post again, you’ll see that I’m not saying that this isn’t a problem, but I’m asking what is different about this from what the situation already was? Why is it being framed as “this new rule is a problem” rather than “the rules we’ve always had are a problem”? There must be something new about this rule but I don’t see what it is.

  • Pantheon

    So, no one knows the answer? What is new about this rule? Are they asking for gender info at a different point in the booking process, or more forms of ID, or what?
    Again, I’m not saying this isn’t a problem, but I don’t see how its new. Correct me if I’m wrong, but anyone flying, say, a year ago, before this new rule, still had to present a passport for international flights and some sort of government issued ID for domestic flights, all of which have their gender listed. So what is new about this rule?

  • Anacas

    The difference is they’re making you pick M or F when you buy a damn ticket now. Yes, it was on ID before. But now it’s something TSA is specifically supposed to be scrutinizing when they look to match ID to traveler to ticket.
    Anyone who’s ever traveled while trans or gender non-conforming knows what the implications of that are. First off, they’ll be paying more attention to those Ms and Fs, which is never a good thing if your marker and presentation don’t correspond in the way the security agent expects. Secondly, more places gender/sex is recorded mean more potential sites of mismatch. If it’s not possible to make your ID documents match your identity or presentation, which of thsoe should your ticket match to make suspicion and harassment least likely? No matter how you decide, someone’s going to think you’re doing it wrong. Next up, the fact that people don’t always buy their own tickets and so won’t always be ticking this new box for themselves. What if the person booking the flight doesn’t know what your ID says? And why should your travel agent have to guess your sex/gender anyway?
    There’s more, but all of this is in the original post anyway, so I’m not sure what more explanation you were really looking for. In the first paragraph: “…the latest phase of their Secure Flight program which requires passengers to provide their full name, birth date, and gender when booking tickets.”
    So yeah, things sucked before too. Now they suck more.