HRC Blog

Transgender Travelers and the TSA

The following is from HRC’s Associate Director of Diversity Allyson Robinson:

For most airline passengers, passing through a TSA security checkpoint has until recently been a slight inconvenience and little more – one minor stressor among the many connected with travel by air.  But as a frequent flyer (60,000 miles this year and counting) who is openly transgender, airport security is my single greatest source of anxiety when I travel.

Why?  It begins long before I leave for the airport.  TSA’s Secure Flight pre-screening program, implemented in 2009, requires passengers to declare their name and gender when purchasing a ticket, and these must match the name and gender on your ID.  For many transgender people, this means outing themselves as soon as they present their ID and boarding pass at the checkpoint, as many of us do not have or are unable to acquire ID that matches our transitioned presentation.  It often exposes us to heightened scrutiny (and, potentially, to harassment and discrimination) before we ever get in line for the scanners.  I’ve been the target of verbal harassment many times at this stage of security.  I’ve also had TSA agents expose my identity as a transgender person loudly enough that other passengers in the screening area could hear, violating my privacy and putting me at a higher risk for harassment and even violence from others.

With TSA’s recent introduction of full-body scanners and enhanced pat-down procedures, the risk of discriminatory treatment of transgender passengers increases dramatically. The scanners reveal to security personnel any prostheses a transgender person may be wearing (a transgender woman wearing prosthetic breasts, for example) and expose intimate body contours that can also out us as transgender.  This can lead to a pat-down – and to the kind of humiliating treatment recently received by a flight attendant and breast cancer survivor who was required to remove her prosthetic breast for a TSA agent’s inspection after a scan revealed its presence. A transgender person can be outed several times though the course of this security process, and every time the chances of harassment and discrimination increase. That’s why HRC first raised these issues in 2008 when we presented our Blueprint for Positive Change to the Obama transition team.  We’ll continue working with the Administration and with our partner organizations until we’re satisfied TSA procedures balance legitimate security needs with the dignity and safety of all travelers, including those of us who are transgender.

If you’re flying for the holidays, I wish you luck getting through the hassles that come with traveling by air these days.  If you’re transgender, then check out these great resources and tips compiled by the National Center for Transgender Equality.  Above all, be proud and be safe.

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