Transgender Travelers Collide with TSA's Security Theater

Blame it on the body scanners, poor training.


Shadi Petosky
Shadi Petosky, Twitter

When Shadi Petosky began tweeting about her terrible treatment at the hands of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers at Orlando International Airport on Sept. 21, she detailed an experience of being ordered around, patted down, dehumanized, and threatened. She was describing a situation familiar to anybody who gets caught up in the agency's airport security theater.

Petosky is also transgender, and that played heavily into her experience. But being transgender and tripping up alerts at airports and getting taken aside or treated poorly is also not a new problem with TSA screening, though it was the first time Petosky, a writer and producer, had an encounter this bad. While she was tweeting her experience, other transgender people on Twitter responded about having similar problems.

What's new is that Petosky's encounter ended up getting significant news coverage, from The New York Times, to the Los Angeles Times, to Vox.com, along with television networks. The coverage highlighted a problem that has persisted for a while: TSA agents are not well-trained to deal with transgender travelers, leaving these flyers uncertain of what to expect when going through airports. Furthermore, the screening technology used for scanning bodies passing through the airport has no real mechanism for recognizing the biology of transgender travelers, prompting confusion to trigger completely unfounded security fears.

Many travelers may not even realize it, but as they're forced in to spread eagle for body scanners in security lines at the airport, a TSA agent is pressing a button telling the machine whether the person inside is a male or female. They don't ask—they just look and decide. In Petosky's case, the TSA employee saw a woman and pressed the appropriate button. And then the employee declared there was an "anomaly," which Petosky bluntly explains to Reason, is her penis.

Petosky says she travels frequently and hadn't had such a problem before. Obviously these body scanners must have picked up the truth about her body, but previous TSA agents must have understood her situation. Petosky says she's ready to explain that she's transgender to TSA personnel if necessary. In fact, when the machine in Orlando registered the "anomaly," she says she immediately told the TSA employee that she was transgender. But rather than accepting the explanation, the TSA agent told her that he wanted her to go through the screening process again "as a man." Apparently he wasn't demanding that Petosky change her appearance. Rather, he wanted to switch the button he pressed to male instead of female. Then it became a big mess.

"He kept saying, 'Are you a man or a woman?'" Petosky says. They said she needed to be pat down, which becomes its own issue for transgender traveler. Should the person patting her down be a man or a woman? She didn't want to make a female TSA employee have to touch her genitals. The situation escalated; she was taken aside for further screening and ultimately missed her flight. Even worse, in order to reschedule her flight, she had to return to the gate area, meaning that she would have to go through the airport's security yet again. In addition, Petosky says she was told her hands tested positive for "explosives" residue twice. It was never explained to her why this happened, and she wondered if this was some sort of retaliation or after-the-fact justification for advanced screening.

Petosky eventually was able to board a flight. After being contacted by several media outlets (including Reason), a TSA spokesperson put out a statement the following morning declaring that the "officers followed TSA's strict guidelines." Petosky found that response surprising, because she has been told by a different representative from the TSA that there's an ongoing investigation, and it would take several days just to interview the TSA employees involved.

Reason spoke to Jen Richards, a writer, actor, and activist on transgender issues. She appears on E!'s reality show I Am Cait, documenting Caitlyn Jenner's gender transition. Richards had an airport experience similar to Petosky in 2013. She live-tweeted her treatment as well, but failed to get the sort of media reaction Petosky did. She credits the increased attention on the transgender experience to the media blitz surrounding Jenner, saying "the public seems ripe for this story."

"I was marked as an 'anomaly,' several times," Richards says. "Only once was I detained. The issue becomes human variation. Usually they just do a pat-down. But sometimes somebody decides to escalate the situation for a reason." She said transgender men can also get caught up by TSA security if they bind their chests.

There are two issues here: The training and the machines. Richards said she's not entirely sure how the machines might function better for transgender fliers, but there are definitely training problems for TSA employees.

"Certainly better training would have prevented these situations from escalating into public embarrassment," Richards says.

As for the machines themselves, The National Center for Transgender Equality is suing the TSA for bypassing the appropriate federal rule-making process to implement the body scanners. They're part of an unusual coalition that includes the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute and pro-liberty group The Rutherford Institute. By failing to follow administrative laws for implementing the body scanners, the petitioners argue, the public was left out of the opportunity to comment and provide feedback for the scanners. Perhaps if they had followed the regulations, they would have better understood that expecting TSA employees to determine sex of thousands of passengers based on superficial appearance was bound to cause confusion for some of them. And a machine that is a programmed to identify anything other than a simplistic analysis of what makes a "male" or "female" as an anomaly is going to ultimately result in problems, and not just for transgender travelers.

"I've had black friends with natural hair get patted down," Richards says. "I've heard of incontinence items [like adult diapers] causing problems." The end result is that anything that is even slightly out of the ordinary is treated as a potential threat, and thus the security theater is fed and amplified for unnecessary reasons. That a person's gender identity or expression doesn't match his or her biology isn't a sign of a terrorist threat.

"We need a system where they're not guessing what genitals they have just by looking at them, because they're not going to be right all the time," Petosky says. "They use term 'anomaly,' when it comes to genitals, and they should be a lot more considerate. I don't see myself as an anomaly. They think that I should be processed as male, but I also have grown breasts. They're telling the transgender community that they're going to be flagged no matter what. …

"My penis should processed like anybody else who has a penis. My breasts should be processed the same way as anybody who has breasts. They have to be able to handle somebody who is both or neither. … If the technology can't tell if I have a penis or if I have something dangerous, it's probably not a very good naked picture."

And then there's the issue that transgender people themselves are being blamed for causing the problems at the airport just by being transgender. In response to the media coverage, Petosky has received criticism from Twitter blaming her for trying to trick people, even though she told the TSA she was transgender at the first sign of any trouble. It's a typical "bathroom panic" response, suggesting that transgender people are trying to defraud people for some sinister goal. In response to the criticism she's getting, Petosky tweeted Monday, "A lot of people's understanding of trans people begins and ends with 'Scooby Doo villain.'"

And as a final reminder from ReasonTV, the TSA thinks even the slightest variation in "normal" human behavior is a sign of potential terrorism: