“I am being held by the TSA in Orlando because of an ‘anomaly’ (my penis),” was the first of one woman’s many tweets published Monday afternoon. What followed was gruesome detail about how her experience being profiled, humiliated, and forced to miss her flight by airport security, all because she is transgender.
For transgender people, those particle body scanners that passengers must now pass through are problematic, because TSA personnel push a button indicating whether — based on their visual perception — the passenger is male or female. Another agent views the scan to look for any “anomalies,” appearances that shouldn’t be on the scan. For a transgender woman (scanned as a woman), her penis might appear as such. For a transgender man (scanned as a man), it could be chest-binding that he’s wearing to reduce the appearance of his breasts.
These individuals are immediately treated as suspicious, particularly if the anomaly continues to appear in additional scans — which of course it would. The individual might then be detained for questioning, subjected to a pat-down, or held for additional questioning. The National Center for Transgender Equality has long provided guidance for transgender people about how to handle these situations, noting that they have the right to a pat-down from an agent of the same gender in a private screening area with a witness of their choosing. They should also not be subjected to questions about their gender or forced to remove any clothing or otherwise reveal any part of their body.
The reason the guidance addresses how to handle the situation after the TSA is already suspicious is because this kind of profiling is all too common. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 11 percent of trans people had been “denied equal treatment” by airport staff or the TSA and 17 percent had been harassed or disrespected. Shadi Petosky, a television writer and the executive producer at Puny Design, had never experienced such treatment, and “really thought the TSA was good about trans issues. I am so dumb.”
According to her tweets, TSA personnel mistreated Petosky in just about every way that they could. At one point, she was left in a room by herself with an officer holding the door shut. At another point, she says she was told she had to go back through the body scanner and be scanned “as a man” to see if the anomaly still appeared. Then, an officer apparently asked her what sex she was, a question she refused to answer. Confusion arose when Petosky explained that she’d rather a female officer pat her down, but also, “I didn’t want to make a woman pat my crotch down. I froze.” She claimed that there were as many as seven different officials investigating her at one time, and then they took her phone “for screening.”
She missed her flight. Then, there was no one at the American Airlines desk to rebook her, so she had to exit the secure area of the airport to obtain a new boarding pass — after this ordeal, she’d have to pass through security again. American Airlines suggested that to guarantee her a flight out that day, it would cost nearly $1,000. Then she was told she was being given a free first-class ticket, but, she claims, they still charged her credit card. When she went back through security, they tried to scan her a second time, but a manager intervened to save her from enduring any further scrutiny.
The only statement the TSA has released about the incident came from spokesman Mike England: “TSA takes all potential civil rights violations very seriously. We are looking into the situation now for further information.”
As Petosky was documenting her treatment, she was also documenting her own humiliation. “I’m not going to lie. I zero percent want to be googled as the transsexual who’s junk got flagged in Orlando,” she wrote at one point. Then again later, “I don’t want my #1 Google results to be about genitals or a pic of me crying but that ship seems to have sailed.” But her experience should not stand out as a unique example, but merely the most recent of too many.
Jen Richards, a friend of Petosky’s and a trans activist who recently featured on Caitlyn Jenner’s I Am Cait, shared her own similar story with ThinkProgress. She was departing from Chicago Midway airport in November 2013, and while passing through security, the anomaly came up three consecutive times. Then “all of a sudden, security kind of tightened. I had to stand in a specific spot. I couldn’t touch my luggage. They called over a supervisor.”
“As I’m sitting there, already clearly embarrassed, I leaned over to the screener and explained to her what I think the anomaly is,” which she could clearly see was in her groin area. Despite the explanation, the supervisor still had to address the situation. Richards was escorted to a closed-off room, and two female officers explained that she had to endure a full body search. When she was asked if she had any prosthetics or implants, she explained, “I’m transgender. I have a penis.” The officers then “freaked out” and claimed they needed to go get male screeners, but Richards insisted, “No, I am legally female. I do not want to be screened by a man. You can screen me; I’m just telling you what it is. They were just unprepared for the situation.”
The Transportation Security Administration does not have any posted policy about how transgender people should be treated, aside from basic guidance that they should use the name and gender that appears on their government-issued ID. “Gender identity” is not listed among the forms of discrimination prohibited against passengers.
When the TSA first introduced body scanners, agents at the gate were actually shown a nude image of the scanned passenger. In January of 2013, the TSA announced that these machines would be removed in favor of screens that only show where on the body anomalies appear, which helped protect the privacy of transgender passengers, but only to a certain extent.
Richards and Petosky’s experiences are unfortunately common. In May of 2014, Al Jazeera America published an exposé about the many complaints filed by transgender passengers. The story noted that TSA screening officers “receive sensitivity training, though it does not generally include content specific to transgender passengers.” The National Center for Transgender Equality even offered to provide trans-specific training, “but was rebuffed.”
In the wake of Petosky’s widely shared tweets, many transgender people have begun sharing their stories on the #TravelingWhileTrans hashtag. The thread is peppered with stories of people being confronted by security when their appearances do not match their legal documents.