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Transgender passengers uneasy about TSA shift on pat-downs

Alexis Dee, an organizer of the Southern Comfort conference for transgender people, said the Transportation Security Administration has made some progress in its treatment of transgender people at TSA checkpoints. (Courtesy of Alexis Dee)

When the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced a recent shift toward a more aggressive and uniform policy on pat-downs at airport checkpoints, transgender people had special reason to be wary.

Transgender passengers have used social media to document humiliating and sometimes hostile experiences at airport checkpoints in recent years. Given the apparent change on transgender policies already signaled by the Trump administration, some LGBT advocates are worried.

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“Every time transgender people navigate airport security they risk being demeaned and humiliated. While the Transportation Security Administration has taken steps to better protect the privacy of transgender passengers, there is a long way to go,” David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), said in a written statement. “More invasive pat downs are a dangerous step in the wrong direction.”

Hailey Melville, 25, a transgender student at Northwestern University’s graduate school of journalism, said in an interview this week that she welcomed the TSA’s stated efforts to treat transgender people with sensitivity. But she said many of the problems she’s encountered start with TSA body-scanning devices that operate differently depending on the gender of the person being screened.

TSA checkpoint personnel must press a button on the advanced imaging technology (AIT) machines to designate gender based on the way passengers present themselves. The machine’s software scans male and female bodies differently and will trigger an alert over any anomaly. That means additional screening, often including a pat-down.

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Melville has asked the security officers to set the machine to the male setting and been refused because of her appearance. But when the machine operates on the female setting, it sets off an alarm that requires her to submit to a pat-down. She said she has tried alerting TSA personnel that she’s transgender but is often ignored, despite the TSA’s stated policies. The Advocate magazine wrote last year that the TSA’s policy on using body scanners would likely cause transgender and gender-nonconforming people to be regularly subjected to intrusive examinations.

“I think it’s important in whatever way possible to help transgender passengers have their dignity,” said Melville, who wrote about her experience in USA Today. “Doing something affirming — like, ‘We’re going to make sure we recognize your gender. We’re going try not to misgender you. We’re going to use proper pronouns’ —  I think those are all affirming things. But at the end of the day, having to go through what is a pretty invasive pat-down every single time I’ve flown . . . is incomprehensible and not something I’m content with.”

The TSA, whose website outlines procedures for screening transgender passengers, says the agency has taken steps to address their concerns. In 2015, then-TSA Administrator Peter Neffinger met with LGBT groups such as the HRC, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the National LGBTQ Task Force, a TSA spokeswoman said. She said the TSA’s Office of Civil Rights and Liberties also developed procedures and training for security personnel so that they could understand and handle the concerns of transgender people.

As part of their continuous training, TSA officers participate in periodic webinars with representatives from the National Center for Transgender Equality, Gender Justice Nevada, Equality Florida and former federal air marshal Veronica Lynn Pickell, the TSA spokeswoman said.

Alexis Dee said the TSA’s efforts have paid off.

“My personal experience with them is they’ve been nothing but polite,” Dee, 65, of Southport, N.C., said. “Whether or not that’s going to change due to Trump, I don’t know.”

Dee, a trans woman who is president of the board of directors for the Southern Comfort conference on transgender issues, said she travels frequently and uses documents identifying her by her birth gender. She has seldom encountered problems with TSA officers at checkpoints since transitioning about 17 years ago, she said. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been awkward encounters.

“I can tell you, when I first started traveling most of them had no clue,” Dee said. After drawing stares and odd looks, she would be told to stand by for a supervisor, who would further scrutinize her and her ID.

“And sometimes I would get, ‘Well, this really doesn’t look like you,” and I would say, ‘Thank you very much, it cost me a lot of money not to do that,’ ” Dee said with a laugh. “Then they just say, ‘Have a nice flight.’ ”

Dee said she has never had to submit to a pat-down, despite traveling widely in the United States and to countries ranging from Argentina to Thailand. She also said it’s worth remembering that courtesy and respect go both ways.

“How you get treated is how you treat somebody,” Dee said. “The biggest problem that causes people to have trouble — trans people or any of the gender-queer people — is an attitude. I’ve seen it happen. . . These [TSA] people are just trying to do their job.”

And yet Dee also knows that many other transgender people haven’t been as fortunate. “Let’s face it, you’re always going to get some jerk that has to make an issue of something like that,” she said.

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