Cross Borders But Not Genders? How Trans People Are Still Being Harassed During Air Travel

Posted on October 1, 2015 in Cake, Gender-Based Violence, LGBTQ, Sexism And Patriarchy

When Trans woman Shadi Petosky entered the security area of Orlando International Airport last Monday, little did she anticipate the nightmare that was in store for her. She was detained, interrogated, misgendered, and treated like some sort of a criminal, for the sole reason of identifying as a woman and checking in through women’s security despite having a penis (which was flagged as an ‘anomaly’). As a result of all this, she was forced to miss her flight, and when she tried to get a ticket for the next flight, she was harassed further—all of which she documented through a series of livetweets.

The TSA’s (Transport Security Adminstration) subsequent official statement completely failed to take any responsibility for their atrocious treatment of Petosky. In fact, they insisted that they followed ‘strict guidelines’ and were trained to deal with trans issues. And yet, millions of trans and gender nonconforming people like Petosky have had to face this kind of discrimination, harassment, emotional trauma, and danger for even the most mundane instances of travel.

Before their legal name or sex change, trans people are often stuck with a name and sex on their legal IDs that does not coincide with their physical presentation and identity, which routinely tends to catch the attention of the authorities. This can lead to everything from extra frisking (very often including inappropriate and non-consensual touching in sensitive areas) and other “enhanced” screening procedures ranging from lengthy questioning to refusal of entry from Customs and Immigration. Those who do not opt for a gender-reassignment surgery (and there are many in the transgender community who choose to do so), despite getting their names changed in their official IDs, get stuck with an improper gender marker, as there are laws which specifically require bottom surgery to change an M to an F, and vice versa. This becomes a major complication during air travel, because, one is required to declare one’s “legal gender” to the TSA when buying an air ticket, and, if that gender is presented in “conflict” with the gender that appears on the official ID, it can raise red flags for the TSA and cause extra checks and investigation. Even more problematic are the body scanning procedures during security check, which are based on a person’s sex—i.e, these body scanning machines conduct thorough scans of various organs of the body and flag anomalies when any particular organ is not in tandem with a person’s gender. Trans bodies frequently do not fit into computerized models of either sex; which means that trans people are far more likely to be flagged and subsequently endure “pat-downs” or other humiliating additional screening measures.

The TSA appears to have some institutional problems with how it deals with trans travelers. Though the TSA updated their website recently to include recommendations for making travel easier for trans people (which included suggestions like pat-downs performed on trans people should only be carried out by those of the same gender with which one identifies, TSA officials should not ask intrusive questions about their gender/gender representation, and so on), this Al-Jazeera report reveals how the TSA violates its own protocols and singles out transgender travelers during security checks. National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling has noted that, “Transgender people end up as collateral damage in TSA’s security theater. Any security system that relies on gender and ‘anatomical anomalies’ will always disparately affect transgender and gender non-confirming people.

Due to such horrifying treatment, many transgender people are discouraged from flying, and prefer to travel by train, or by road. However, even then, the threat still lingers. In many parts of the United States, trans people can still be arrested simply for not using the bathroom for the sex assigned to them at birth. Which means—a trans woman could be sent to jail for using the women’s restroom, and a trans man could be sent to jail for using the men’s restroom. Many States, especially in the South, still enforce such draconian, horrific, discriminatory legislation. Hence, even an innocuous bathroom stop while driving from one place to another can prove dangerous to a trans person.

While looking through the internet for personal stories of the travel difficulties faced by trans people, the recurring themes I noticed were: hassle, harassment, and complications. Most people spoke about some manner of difficulty with the TSA, many had unfortunate encounters with other law enforcement authorities, and almost everyone talked about how scary and unsafe finding a bathroom can be. Even today, travelling (especially flying) as a trans person seems like a battle against odds, and the personal liberties, and basic civil rights of trans people are in jeopardy. The TSA, and all other pertinent authorities should not be in a position to deny any innocent individual their right to travel safely. Why should things as harmless as travelling from one place to another, using the bathroom that best suits one’s needs, be cause for such public humiliation and persecution?