SAN FRANCISCO -- The Transportation Security Administration said Thursday that its managers at Los Angeles International Airport are undergoing mandatory sensitivity training after a transgender employee alleged she was ordered to dress like a man, pat down male passengers and use the men's restroom.
Ashley Yang, 29, who spent two years as a security checkpoint screener at LAX, was fired last summer after co-workers observed her using the women's room, according to a copy of her termination letter obtained by The Associated Press. She contested the firing, resulting in a settlement that mandated the training.
"Ashley lives her life as a woman. Her co-workers recognized her as a woman. Passengers recognized her as a woman. But her employer didn't," said attorney Kristina Wertz of the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center, which helped her file a civil rights complaint. "She was asked to hide who she was just in order to earn a living."
The settlement, reached in December and completed last month, also called for Yang to receive five months of back pay and a five-figure award for pain and suffering.
TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said he could not discuss details of the case because of privacy rules. But he confirmed that the required training of managers started this summer and was ongoing.
"It's part of the world we live in today," he said. "We need to be aware of transgender issues not only for our co-workers, but for passengers." LAX, with a staff of 2,500 security officers, has as many as 100 managers, according to Melendez.
Yang started living as a woman and taking hormones to feminize her appearance in 2006, two years before she applied to work for TSA. Her interviewer never doubted that the delicately featured candidate with artfully applied makeup and finely arched eyebrows was a woman, she said. Her California driver's license identifies her as female.
She informed the agency she was transgender before a background check revealed the name she used when she was a man. The agency reminded her that agents had to be the same gender as the passengers they search and asked whether she had gone through sex reassignment surgery, which she had not.
When she showed up for training, Yang was told that according to TSA regulations she would have to pat down men and was offered a position working with baggage. She insisted that part of the job's appeal was working with people.
She was then told she would have to cut her long, highlighted hair, follow the dress code for male agents and use the men's bathroom, she said. She obtained permission to wear a wig instead, but was told to buy one with "a more male look."
Yang said she settled on a short Afro, but passengers and co-workers weren't convinced. Because of her feminine appearance, she sometimes received inappropriate comments from men who were surprised to find a woman frisking them, Yang claimed.
She said men made comments like, "I haven't had a girl touch me for a long time," or, "Does this mean you are going to buy me dinner?"
Agents who did not know she was transgender would call her over to search women. After management became concerned that hair length requirements would violate the rights of some religions adherents, she was allowed to wear her hair in a bun.
"When you get a job, you are like, `I'll follow the rules for now.' It's a job you don't know too much about, and you don't want to push," she said. "When they said `same-sex pat-down,' I didn't know that would affect how i would be treated because I didn't apply for the job as a guy.... People would see my face and know I was a woman."
Yang said she was not trying to be impertinent about the bathroom issue. She said she informed her managers that since California law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and includes employment protections for transgender workers, she understood that using the women's room was her right.
A TSA screening director said her behavior constituted a failure "to comply with the instructions given to you by management." Her supervisors told her they would research the issue, but did not change their position. She was fired.
Melendez said he did not know if the TSA would require managers at other airports to get transgender sensitivity training or clarify that transgender job applicants do not need to have undergone surgery in order to work in jobs that reflect their new genders.
But passengers are not subject to surgery requirements at the airport, he said
"When passengers come to the checkpoint, we have to screen the passengers based on how they present themselves. If they present themselves as male, they are screened by a man. If they present themselves as female, they are screened by a woman," he said.
The awkward dance between TSA and Yang reflects an expanding and unsettled frontier in employment and civil rights law, said Michael Silverman, executive director of the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund.
While many states do not require surgery as a condition for changing gender on a driver's license, virtually all do not allow transgender people to obtain new birth certificates unless they have undergone certain medical procedures.
The latter practice was challenged for the first time by Silverman's group, which sued New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in March.
At the federal level, the landscape is just as uneven, according to Silverman.
The U.S. Department of State this year changed its passport rules to delete the surgery threshold. Transgender applicants need only present a doctor's letter stating they have undergone a gender transition, which may have included psychological counseling and hormones. Surgery still is required to change gender designations on Social Security Administration records.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued guidance to federal agencies stating that "dress codes should not be used to prevent a transgender employee from living full-time in the role consistent with his or her gender identity." Transgender workers do not need to provide proof of surgery to use restrooms that match the gender with which they identify, it said.
"The notion that every transgender person needs or wants surgery in order to fully transition is simply incorrect," Silverman said.
"Different people require different levels of surgical intervention and different types of surgical intervention. There is no one size fits all of what is going to be prescribed, and it should be very clear that for some people, it's going to be no surgery at all," he said.