Navigating updated TSA policies for transgender people and sexual assault survivors

While the Transportation Security Administration has implemented new policies revolving body scanner and patdown airport security screenings, many people weary of 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—previously created a detailed image like this one:

Photo: Screen capture of the TSA body scans, which is a nearly nude person with weapons concealed on their clothing. Photo source: Google Images

The scanner image leave little to the imagination. While the TSA maintains the images do not show faces and are deleted, there have been reports of scanner images leaked online. And blurring faces does not mean the photos are anonymous, as scars, tattoos and other body modifications can identify a photo.

Newly implemented software would create an image like the one below, with a generic outline of a person, locating on the body potential threat items, weapons or anomalies:

Photo: A screen capture of the TSA's body image software, with a  generic body outline, front and back. Photo source: Google Images

But the new scanners require screeners to select a male or female gender for the passenger based on the passenger’s gender presentation, which is potentially problematic for transgender passengers. When asked if a transgender woman with a penis was scanned as female, “the reality is, an anomaly will come up if the individual appears to be female–is female–and has parts that may not be expected, additional screening will be necessary,” said Stephanie Stoltzfus, a representative of the TSA Office of Civil Rights and Liberties, External Compliance and Public Outreach Division, while unveiling the new software.

“Let’s say [a TSA agent] hits the blue button, [indicating male],” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, to “There’s three kinds of people for whom they might hit the blue button, all of whom the TSA agent perceives to be male. And the person might be the person who has stereotypical genitalia, a normal-sized penis and testicles. But the person might be somebody who has disproportionate, or unexpectedly large genitalia; or unexpectedly small, or no genitalia.”

Passengers whose bodies don’t conform to a TSA agent’s expectations of their perceived or stated gender—whether those expectations are encoded in a device or the human mind—become targets of suspicion, and can be targeted for further security screenings and patdowns.

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.

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

  • Travelers should make sure the gender provided when they book their flight matches the gender designation on the government-issued ID they bring to the airport. TSA travel document checkers will check to ensure that information on your ID matches your boarding pass; it does not matter whether your current gender presentation matches the gender marker on your ID or your presentation in your ID photo, and TSA officers should not comment on this.
  • 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.
  • Transgender people should never be required to lift, remove or raise an article of clothing to reveal a prosthetic item and should not be asked to remove it. This applies to items such as breast forms and packers.
  • 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. 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.

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.

UPDATE: Need to report harassment by a TSA agent? There’s an app for that.

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

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