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#TravelingWhileTrans: The trauma of returning to ‘normal’

As flights take off again, trans travelers detail past experiences and call for change in TSA protocol

(El Boum/For The Washington Post)
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When preparing for an upcoming flight, most transgender people would far prefer simple stressors like zipping shut an overstuffed suitcase or remembering to pack a cellphone charger. Oftentimes, though, traveling while trans means carrying a lot of other baggage — worrying about verbal and physical harassment, toting medical equipment and prosthetics, and generally wondering how safe a destination is for trans people. Perhaps the most stressful step of all happens before the journey even begins: passing through airport security checkpoints.

For trans people, trips to the airport commonly conjure serious anxieties about millimeter wave scanners — which routinely trigger false alarms about trans bodies — and the repeated discrimination trans travelers have experienced at the hands of the Transportation Security Administration.

Concerning reports about TSA’s treatment of travelers with marginalized genders date back nearly 20 years to the early days of the federal agency, which was established in 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In 2019, a ProPublica investigation found that trans travelers are frequently subjected to “pat-downs” of genitals, misgendering, pressure to expose private body parts and invasive screenings. Such stories have become so widespread that there is a hashtag — #TravelingWhileTrans — that travelers have used to share encounters with TSA.

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“Whether it be by perceived gender, race, ethnicity, religion or disability, the TSA has a long record of singling out and terrorizing folks who are just trying to catch their plane,” says Shawn Thomas Meerkamper, senior staff attorney at the Transgender Law Center, in an email.

Currently, as the hospitality and transportation sectors focus on the “return to travel,” many trans travelers are feeling anxiety about once again lining up at airport checkpoints.

“There’s always anxiety when you travel, but it’s amplified by knowing I’m going to have this unique experience,” says Jessica Wadleigh of the Portland, Ore.-based independent press Zines & Things. “As I’m planning my trip, I’m simultaneously planning how I’m going to interact with airport personnel: How am I going to handle it this time?” she tells me.

This past spring, Wadleigh published a zine titled “#TravelingWhileTrans,” in which she detailed several traumatizing incidents with TSA agents at Portland International Airport and San Francisco International Airport. Its release coincided with the vaccine-driven travel resurgence and a key TSA milestone.

With this year marking two decades since the TSA’s creation, I spoke to more than a dozen trans activists, policy experts and travelers who say the agency has failed to meaningfully address these widely established problems. The past year’s activism against the discrimination embedded in America’s policing systems has only intensified calls for more sweeping changes. “It is long past time for TSA to de-gender its screening processes,” Meerkamper says.

TSA horror stories are commonplace in the trans community

More than 40 percent of trans travelers have experienced a problem at airport security checkpoints simply due to being trans, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). Respondents reported misgendering, pat-downs and being required to expose their undergarments or bodies. It’s for these reasons that NCTE publishes TSA resources to help transgender people navigate airport security.

This is “not only a matter of personal dignity,” says Olivia Hunt, senior policy counsel for NCTE, in a written statement. “While that is a factor, the main reason why it is a problem for a Transportation Security Officer to misgender someone, or otherwise draw attention to their status as transgender or nonbinary, is that it potentially exposes them to verbal and physical harassment from other Transportation Security Officers, airport personnel and their fellow travelers.”

Every trans person I spoke to for this report shared traumatizing episodes with the TSA, which makes the prospect of post-pandemic air travel especially fraught. “Traveling pre-covid was simply hard being a trans disabled person of color,” writes poet, performer and educator Kay Ulanday Barrett in an email. “The level of policing can just be harassing, hurtful and time consuming. Let’s say you go on a vacation or have to see loved ones; the obstacles beforehand are an onslaught of discouragements.”

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These experiences make many trans people apprehensive when thinking about booking a flight. “I definitely am not super comfortable going through TSA because I pretty much always set off the scanners as having some sort of ‘anomaly,’” says Rosalynne Montoya, a model, actor and public speaker who more often goes by Rose. While traveling from Phoenix to Los Angeles to visit their partner, Montoya had to navigate their latest humiliating experience with TSA, which they shared in a viral TikTok viewed by millions. Their videos have sparked yet another conversation on social media about how commonplace such incidents are.

“I don’t feel safe. I don’t expect TSA agents to have my best interests at heart,” Montoya says. “I’ve been sexually assaulted, groped, grabbed, forced to remove my clothing [at TSA checkpoints]. I remember those times every time I go through TSA.”

They recently purchased TSA PreCheck in the hopes of a smoother screening process through metal detectors instead of the millimeter wave scanners, but PreCheck does not eliminate the risk of pat-downs. So Montoya remains “really hesitant to fly” because of these “horrible memories” at security checkpoints.

Treating trans bodies as threats — it’s by technological design

Everyone who flies to and within the United States must pass through airport checkpoints that are more invasive than many other countries. The TSA’s public guidance to trans people states these screenings are “conducted without regard to a person’s race, color, sex, gender identity, national origin, religion or disability.” However, the system requires TSA agents to make a snap binary decision about a traveler’s gender every day.

New York recently became the latest state to pass legislation for gender-neutral state identification. But for the TSA, it does not matter if a trans person’s gender is correctly marked on government IDs, as the machines are “built on a [cisgender] binary system that requires TSA screening officers to make a determination of gender based on a passenger’s visual presentation prior to screening,” a TSA spokesperson says in a written statement. That takes the form of a blue “boy” button and a pink “girl” button that agents tap as you approach the machine.

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In their 2020 book, “Design Justice,” the scholar Sasha Costanza-Chock shares their own TSA encounters to detail how gender nonconforming people experience the TSA’s “advanced imaging technology.” After pressing one of the pink or blue buttons, the scan of your body will be algorithmically compared to two binary models: one based on a cisgender man with a penis and without disabilities; another based on a cisgender women with breasts and a vagina and without disabilities. When the artificial intelligence (AI) finds someone’s anatomy does not match what’s coded into its algorithm, yellow boxes pop up on the corresponding parts of the digital model body, indicating that agents must search you there.

“What that means is for a lot of trans or gender nonconforming people, you are going to get flagged by the system for being ‘nonnormative,’ for being ‘nonconforming,’ because the shape of your body is likely to fall outside the assumptions of that construct,” Costanza-Chock says. In other words, the system operates as if trans, intersex and gender nonconforming travelers do not exist.

‘Security theater’ might not keep anyone safer

The TSA acknowledges the burden its systems place on trans travelers. “TSA is committed to treating each traveler with courtesy and respect,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “The agency regularly engages with transgender/gender diverse communities while seeking to mitigate the impacts that advanced imaging technology screening can impose on these travelers.”

The advanced imaging technology does not harm the trans community alone. Reports have, for example, documented how TSA scanners repeatedly flag Black people’s hair — particularly Black women’s — as suspicious. This means the system places an even greater burden on Black trans people.

The TSA confirms it is exploring “appropriate and effective security screening technologies and procedures not predicated on binary gender identification,” the spokesperson said, without committing to any timeline or sharing details of such plans.

Some say that amounts to taping a tiny bandage to a much larger wound. “I don’t think that just including trans people’s bodies or Black people’s hair or other marginalized communities in the models of risk assessment in millimeter wave scanners is the solution,” says Costanza-Chock, who notes that the problem of systemic transphobia, racism and ableism goes much deeper than the online training TSA agents receive or the AI’s data set.

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The question of whether to keep this system in place is one the agency seems to have been asking itself, as its own secret investigations have proved that its screening systems might not be effective at keeping the public safer. In 2015, for example, a leaked TSA report found that security checkpoints at America’s busiest airports failed to catch 95 percent of bombs and weapons secretly smuggled by undercover investigators. Similarly, countries such as France and Germany have avoided using millimeter wave scanners because of the false positive rates exceeding 50 percent and the overall high operating costs. It’s why some critics and former agents say the TSA practices “security theater,” not security.

For these reasons, experts increasingly call on millimeter wave scanners to be removed — especially when the TSA already implements alternative screening measures such as PreCheck, which typically does not employ advanced imaging technology.

While the TSA did not answer questions about any specific changes or reforms it has made in the past several years, Costanza-Chock sees hope in the rising calls for change. “We’re in a real moment of reckoning in terms of people’s understanding of how race and gender and disability and other forms of structural inequality are being built into technology,” they say.

“We need to gather together across the different communities that are harmed — and people who don’t face this experience but want to be in solidarity with us — to demand some shifts from TSA and from airport security systems.”