Air travel is pretty much the worst: you are forced to wait for an excruciatingly long amount of time in order to board an airborne vector for disease that's filled with squalling infants and various bland pretzel snacks. However, for transgender and genderqueer passengers, who often face undue scrutiny from TSA officers, the tedious drudgery is far from the worst aspect of going to the airport.
According to documents recently obtained by Al Jazeera, "trans people have been required to undergo pat-down searches by officers of the opposite gender, reveal or remove items such as chest binders and prosthetic penises and defend challenges to their gender identities and their right to opt out of body scans, among other problems." Troublingly, the logic of a strict restrictive gender binary is literally built into the system — the body scan machines used at most airports feature blue and pink start buttons, which activate special computer algorithms meant to screen male and female passengers, respectively. If a passenger is misgendered, or if s/he has body characteristics of more than one gender, it might register as an "anomaly."
This was the case in one specific case at LAX, in which a trans woman was selected for a secondary screening after the machine registered a "groin anomaly." She's repeatedly misgendered in the subsequent report:
T5 PM shift — a transgender male passenger alarmed that AIT for a groin anomaly. The passenger had breast implants but also a penis which lead to the IO assuming is [sic] was a female with a groin anomaly. The passenger presented himself as female so the RPD was conducted by a female LTSO.
Such institutionalized insensitivity can lead to aggressive and humiliating behavior on the part of the TSA officer. In one particularly harrowing example, which took place in Las Vegas in 2012, a transgender passenger was repeatedly denied the right to opt out of going through the security body scanners (something all passengers have the right to do), then subjected to a "very uncomfortable and longer-than-usual pat-down" by an officer of the opposite gender. "Overall," the complaint reads, "this was one of the most uncomfortable and terrifying experiences of my life."
This wasn't an isolated incident or a surprising oversight — other complaints from trans passengers detail the same sort of mistreatment. For instance, a second passenger, a trans man who wears a brace around his chest, missed his flight after undergoing an "inappropriate and exaggerated" pat-down; a third — also a trans man — was forced to remove his strap-on and put it through the X-ray machine despite telling the TSA officer that "this item is as much a part of [him] as a prosthetic leg or arm would be to an amputee." And, in a 2011 memo from LAX, a TSA officer details the way in which he refused to let a trans woman be screened by a fellow woman, misgendering her thoughtlessly and callously:
[Redacted] approached me stating that there was a male who's stating that he's identifying his self [sic] as female. I told him that we have to screen him as he presents his self [sic]... He was speaking with LTSO telling him that he wants to be screened by a female and identifies his self [sic] as a female. He also stated that if he was to be screened by a male he would feel violated. I explained to the male passenger that he would have to be screened by a male.
The fear of finding oneself the receiving end of this breed of horrible ignorance is something that actively discourages trans people from flying. As trans-rights advocate Kole Myrick told Al Jazeera:"What if I am packing [wearing a prosthetic] but I still have a female gender marker? They're going to think I'm hiding something down my pants to get through security... I'm kind of an open book [but] I want my privacy if it's a private matter."
Encouragingly, though, all of this documentation comes from a FOIA request made in September 2012, and things have gotten a bit better since then. National Center for Transgender Equality's policy director Harper Jean Tobin says that her organization has received "significantly fewer horror stories, significantly fewer anxious phone calls and emails" in the past few years, and she's begun doing web-based sensitivity training for some TSA officers. It's definitely much-needed.
Image via Getty.