The TSA makes it dangerous to fly while trans

Flying while trans is an act of bravery. Transgender travelers are disproportionately targeted for questioning and pat-downs as a result of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) policies that lead to us being “outing” as trans. Outed in airports – big, crowded, public spaces. Yeah, it sucks.

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) has been doing a great job focusing on how TSA policy can negatively impact transgender and gender non-conforming folks. The new body scanners that caused such a big public outcry have been especially dangerous for trans travelers, who have been targeted for questioning and invasive pat-downs because of perceived discrepancies between their body scan and gender presentation. The TSA recently released software upgrades so that the scanners will no longer show explicit images of a person’s body. But NCTE has pointed out we don’t know if these changes will have a positive impact for trans folks. In fact, the changes might not fix the problem for us at all, since it appears TSA officers need to tell the new software if travelers are male or female.

Image of a passenger appears on the screen as Transportation Safety Administration employees demonstrate new body scanner software in Arlington, Virginia

NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling said about the body scans:

“Transgender people end up as collateral damage in TSA’s security theater. Any security system that relies on gender and ‘anatomical anomalies’ will always disparately affect transgender and gender non-conforming people. The TSA must act to bring their screening practices up to speed with social norms that value transgender people and our privacy.”

Now a TSA pilot program is raising concerns. Agents conduct mandatory short interviews with travelers, which have been dubbed “chat-downs” (someone at the TSA’s feeling clever). Agents will be looking for signs of nervousness and concealment, which should raise red flags for trans folks – I know I feel damn nervous and like I’m hiding something when I fly as a result of TSA policies.

Keisling on the new technique:

“The TSA continues to do a good job of making transgender people uncomfortable at airports. The TSA already employs interview-style interventions at airports across the country, and the TSA’s intent to explore and possibly expand this program is worrisome. ”

The TSA has been loving discriminatory “security” measures since 9/11, when the agency instated policies targeting people seen as Muslim or Arab. The requirement that you gender presentation match the gender on your ID was especially frightening for trans folks. Clearly, the trans community isn’t the only group of marginalized folks being unfairly treated, but we’re one of the groups facing the brunt of the security state.

These sorts of policies have a real impact. I’ve been fairly lucky while flying – I’ve gone through an extra scan because of TSA agents’ gender confusion, but that’s it. I have friends who have been searched and interrogated for hours. They’ve been publicly outed and then had to teach some basic gender theory to TSA agents. The agents themselves are also put in confusing and uncomfortable situations when they’re not offered the adequate training on working with trans travelers. Often they have to pat down someone of a different gender, when policy states all pat-downs are supposedly same-gender.

NCTE is asking that folks file complaints with the TSA’s Office of Civil Rights and Liberties and the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties if they experience discrimination. They’re also encouraging folks to share their stories with NCTE to aid in advocacy efforts.

Frustratingly, there aren’t great options for trans folks to avoid being targeted in the short term. Once more from Keisling:

“Unfortunately, when forced to pick between two traumatic experiences (an invasive pat-down or a body-scan), there are no great options for transgender people. With what we know about the scanners, trans people who go through are disproportionately selected for pat-downs anyway. The best thing transgender and gender non-conforming people can do is learn about the process and their rights, and make the choices that are best for their personal situation. We encourage transgender people to read NCTE’s guide on air travel safety.”

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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