Navigating TSA policies for transgender people and survivors

UPDATE: The TSA has implemented new policies that impact transgender people and sexual assault survivors differently. Click here for an updated guide to navigating the security procedures.

The Transportation Security Administration‘s newly implemented body scanners and pat-downs have left many people weary of holiday traveling, especially transgender people and survivors of sexual assault.

The advanced imaging technology scanners — used to detect prohibited items including weapons, explosives and other metallic and non-metallic threat items concealed under layers of clothing without physical contact — create an image like this one:

The body scanners are used to check a small portion of travelers, who are selected for additional screenings, at about 70 airports. The TSA hasn’t released how many passengers will be selected for the additional screenings, but security experts estimate that 10 to 20 percent of flyers might be chosen, according to U.S. News & World Report. The TSA plans to order more body scanners, so the additional screenings could become routine for all passengers.

If a person opts out of the body scan, they will be subject to pat-downs in which TSA agents touch a passengers inner thighs, as well as between and below breasts.

Needless to say, the scanner images leave little to the imagination. While the TSA assures the images do not show faces and are not saved, rumors are flying that images taken in Florida were leaked online. And blurring faces does not mean the photos are anonymous, as scars, tattoos and other body modifications can identify a photo.

Privacy issues aside, body scanners can create issues for transgender people when undergoing airport security. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality:

Whole body imaging scanners produce a three-dimensional image of the passenger’s nude body, including breasts, genitals, buttocks, prosthetics, binding materials and any objects on the person’s body, in an attempt to identify contraband. These scanners may out transgender people to TSA staff and potentially subject transgender people to further screening at the airports.

In its body scanner FAQs, NCTE offers these travel tips:

  • Both travelers and TSA personnel have the right to be treated with dignity, discretion and respect. If you encounter any issues, politely ask to speak to a supervisor immediately. Remain polite. Do not raise your voice or threaten TSA staff; this only results in additional delays.
  • You have the right to opt out of a full-body scan in favor of a manual pat-down. It is your choice.
  • You have the right to choose whether a pat-down is conducted in the public screening area or in a private area, and, if in a private area, whether to be accompanied by a travel companion.
  • You have the right to have manual search procedures performed by an officer who is of the same gender as the gender you are currently presenting. This does not depend on the gender listed on your ID, or on any other factor. If TSA officials are unsure who should pat you down, ask to speak to a supervisor and calmly insist on the appropriate officer.
  • You should not be subjected to additional screening or inquiry because of any discrepancy between a gender marker on an ID and your appearance. As long as your ID has a recognizable picture of you on it, with your legal name and birth date, it should not cause any problem.
  • Foreign objects under clothing, such as binding, packing or prosthetic devices, may show up as unknown or unusual images on a body scan or patdown, which may lead TSA personnel to do additional screening.  This does not mean that you cannot fly with these items, but you may be forced to undergo further screening. Be prepared to explain what these items are or check them in your luggage so that you can minimize scrutiny and delays.
  • Items containing liquid, gel or powder substances will trigger additional security screenings; therefore, we strongly recommend you pack these items in your checked luggage or leave them at home.
  • Wigs or hairpieces may require additional screening if they are bulky or not form-fitting. If you have gone through a metal detector or body scanner and TSA personnel want to do additional screening of a wig or hairpiece, you may request that a patdown be limited to your hairpiece or that you be permitted to pat the area down yourself and have your hands swiped for chemical residue.
  • If you are carrying medically prescribed items, such as syringes for hormone injections or vaginal dilators, it is very helpful to have proof of the medical necessity of the item(s). Ask your doctor for a letter stating that he or she has prescribed the item, or keep medical devices in their pharmacy packaging that includes a prescription label. Be prepared to briefly explain the purpose of the item if asked.

Additionally, many aspects of airport security can further traumatize a sexual assault survivor. According to Newsweek:

“After a sexual assault, it seems that many survivors have difficulty having their bodies touched by other people,” says Shannon Lambert, founder of the Pandora Project, a nonprofit organization that provides support and information to survivors of rape and sexual abuse. This fear of contact even extends to partners and, often, medical professionals. “A lot of survivors do not want to be in positions where they’re vulnerable. They put up defenses so that they can be in control of their body. In cases like this, it seems like some of that control is going away.”

If that sense of control is violated, it can lead to more than hurt feelings. There’s a physical reaction associated with a triggering incident, and the response can vary from person to person.

“We’ve had a number of survivors who have had their pictures taken and put online,” as part of a sexual assault, says Lambert. “So for them, even though [the TSA photo is] deleted, even if the person is in the other room, the idea that the photo’s being taken can be difficult to handle.”

If taking to the skies is the only travel option, Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services recommends survivors familiarize themselves with TSA security procedures to help avoid a potentially triggering incident. While the TSA is tight-lipped about the changes, U.S. News & World Report has a good overview of what to expect when going through airport security.

Passengers may opt to communicate sensitive personal or medical matters on a standardized notification card created by the TSA. While this card does not exempt anyone from security screenings, it serves as a means to discretely inform agents about a passenger’s situation. The Pandora Project has created cards like these specifically for survivors of sexual assault to use in potentially triggering situations.

The TSA policies regarding body scanners and pat-downs leave travelers with few options. Unfortunately, if there is no travel alternative to flying, passengers must weigh the options and decide what makes them feel least uncomfortable and unsafe.

If you dislike the new security policies or a TSA agent acts inappropriately while screening you, contact the TSA and/or the American Civil Liberties Union to file a complaint.

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6 thoughts on “Navigating TSA policies for transgender people and survivors

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Navigating TSA policies for transgender people and survivors | Stuff Queer People Need To Know -- Topsy.com

  2. Not only is this an especially difficult concern for transgender people and survivors of sexual assault but I have heard a lot of parents complaining. They have voiced that they are caught in a hard place in which they have to decide if a TSA officer is allowed to look at their child’s naked body- and concerns about the photos getting out the public are heightened- or if their child will be forced to undergo a pat-down that could look or feel like molestation and greatly violate the child’s boundaries.

    What I wonder is how many attacks will this actually cut out. I doubt that it will be very many…

  3. I have talk to many TGs and have traveled myself through Airports all around the US. What I have found is that as long as you are polite and truthful with Airport personel and TSA agents, you will get through with little to no hassels at all! One thing one TG lady said is wearing a long skirt got her patted down more likely the if she wore a shorter skirt! She said that when is is patted down a female agent does the pat down!

  4. Pingback: An Open Letter to The Capitol Steps: the TSA Bit and Trans* Slurs | redhead bouquet

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