Should the transgender community be fearful of TSA screenings when traveling by air? At minimum, monthly, there seems to be a social media post of a transgender person who has experienced a demeaning and often frightening experience while going through security at America’s airports.
A good friend of mine, who happens to be a pre-op transgender woman, recently told me that she hasn’t seen her parents in 10 years because she is afraid to fly. Her family lives in Seattle and she is so fearful of going through the scanners at the airport that she just opts to not travel. At the same time, in a climate where airport security is vital to national security and fighting terror, where is the middle ground? How can we stay safe and at the same time provide a respectful and uncompromising situation for transgender people who travel by air?
I have worked with the TSA over the past two years, in conducting several national Transgender Cultural Competency Webinars to increase gate agents’ understanding of the trans community. Recently, the TSA published “Know Before You Go” travel guidelines for trans travelers, as well as a YouTube video designed to inform trans travelers of what to expect when going through airport security. The published guidelines and video are a positive step in taking the fear out of flying but more remains to do.
In a statement by Marie Trottier, of the Multicultural Branch of the Transportation Security Administration - Department of Homeland Security,
TSA recognizes that members of the transgender community may have concerns about security screening when flying. We worked with transgender traveler, Kristin Beck, who had a bad experience at a security checkpoint, to develop a video focused on helping transgender travelers through security screening process and letting them know what to expect.
All of these steps are positive in that knowledge is power. If everyone is following the same script, and if consistency can be achieved by agents nation-wide, we will take a huge step in creating travel equity. The challenge remains that there are several subjective aspects of the process that unfortunately can lead to human error or misjudgments.
First, the gate agent presses a pink or blue scanner “gender button” based on a subjective judgement of one’s gender presentation. As with recent “bathroom bill” issues, the judgement of someone’s gender presentation is far from a perfect science. A miscalculation here can lead to a “female” traveler being patted down by a male TSA agent. The “patting down” process is the second issue. In most cases, when a travel issue occurs, it involves an overzealous agent publicly verbalizing an “anomaly” while conducting the pat down, or being overly intrusive, and in many cases, bringing the violated traveler to tears.
No one should be afraid to fly. We applaud the TSA’s efforts to involve the transgender community in the education process. Everyone knowing the process, knowing the rules and knowing their rights, will lead to a more accommodating travel experience. But, until we eliminate subjective gender determinations and find a better way to ensure travel safety than with inconsistent scanners and pat downs, the transgender community will have to find refuge in knowing what to expect, knowing our rights and truly “Know Before You Go.”