Traveling While Trans: Airport Security Sees Your Genitals as Cause for Alarm

A Maine trans man alleges that a Florida TSA agent inappropriately touched him beneath his clothing.

The TSA system uses machines that scan bodies differently according to whether an agent has visually identified a traveler as male or female. Combined with a new pat-down policy, this makes traveling especially fraught for trans passengers. Scott Olson/Getty Images

When Zack Hawkins flies, he knows what to expect when he passes through airport security.

“I’ve been through it before,” said the 18-year-old transgender man and Maine resident. “I know they have to clear the alarms.”

In late April, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) put out a screening guidance for trans passengers, but nothing could have prepared Hawkins for the recent experience he had with the TSA at Daytona Beach International Airport in Florida. Commercial air travel as a trans person is especially fraught, and few things cause more anxiety for trans passengers than a TSA security checkpoint.

Most at issue is a screening process that is designed in a way that trans passengers are often automatically flagged as potential threats. Official TSA protocol labels the incongruent genitals of trans people as “alarms.”

Issues for Hawkins started when he first approached the TSA agent who was screening IDs. Because his ID still lists his birth-assigned sex as female, the agent examined both the driver’s license and Hawkins’ appearance before asking whether the ID was really him. After some discussion, Hawkins was allowed through to the body scanner.

“I always look over my shoulder to see where the alarms are showing up on the computer screen. This time, I saw that my shoulder area was lit up as well as the very top of my waistline, like near my belly button,” he said.

When asked to clarify the body scanning process for passengers, TSA spokesperson Sari Koshetz replied in a statement with language taken verbatim from its website: “When you enter the imaging portal, the TSA officer presses a button designating a gender (male/female) based on how you present yourself. The machine has software that looks at the anatomy of men and women differently. The equipment conducts a scan and indicates areas on the body warranting further inspection if necessary. If there is an alarm, TSA officers are trained to clear the alarm, not the individual.”

Searches of the TSA’s website and blog both came up empty on exactly how the agency clears an “alarm, not the individual,” and a request for clarification went unanswered.

At first, Hawkins said there was nothing amiss with the resulting pat down. “[The agent] said he was going to pat down my shoulder, and he ran his hands along my shoulder and shook out my hood. Then he said he was going to pat down the the front waist of my pants. Instead he pulled the waistband of my pants and underwear out and slid his hands inside both.”

Hawkins alleges that the pat down went even further. “I could feel his fingertips at the bottom of my genitals, and he stayed there for several seconds.”

Transgender people can be especially sensitive when it comes to their genitals, but for survivors of sexual assault like Hawkins, such experiences can be especially triggering. In March, TSA announced it would implement a new “universal pat-down procedure” in response to a 2015 undercover test of airport security measures by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

In the past, agents were given the option of using one of five different pat-down techniques to clear an alarm, depending on the situation. While details of the new policy have not specifically been disclosed, reports indicate that agents are now allowed to use the front of their hands—meaning the side with the palm—while patting down a passenger instead of just the back of their hands.

Under the new procedure, more intimate touch by TSA personnel is likely, and trans people and sexual assault survivors are probably even more at risk for violation. In fact, TSA field security directors have been notifying local and airport police to expect an increase in complaints regarding sexual assault by TSA agents.

After taking a few minutes to collect himself at his departure gate and consult with his mother by phone, Hawkins said he went back to the checkpoint to speak with a supervisor who insisted that the agent did not put his hand down Hawkins’ pants.

After filing a complaint via comment card (an official complaint report was not made available for Hawkins to submit), Hawkins eventually returned back to the gate to await his flight. Later, the local Daytona TSA supervisor tracked him down and attempted to explain.

“He said that he had looked at the tape of the pat down and saw that the agent did really put his hands inside my pants.” Hawkins continued: “He said that the agent was a really good guy and that he’d been working for the TSA for 20 years, and it felt like he was just trying to make excuses for the guy at that point.”

When approached for comment, TSA spokesperson Koshetz denied any wrongdoing on the part of the agent. “I have had the opportunity to review the video. Our officer was respectful and patted down inside only the very top edge of the waistband. Absolutely no inappropriate touching occurred.”

Koshetz also reiterated the agency’s nondiscrimination policy. “TSA recognizes the concerns that some members of the transgender community may have with certain security screening procedures at the nation’s security checkpoints. TSA is committed to ensuring all travelers are treated with respect and courtesy. Screening is conducted without regard to a person’s race, color, sex, gender identity, national origin, religion or disability.”

Even before the TSA decided to enhance their pat downs, their treatment of transgender passengers was under question. According to the 2015 Transgender Survey of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), 43 percent of trans people who went through airport security in the past year experienced at least one issue related to their gender identity or expression.

NCTE spokesperson Jay Wu stated that it was too early to tell when it comes to the new pat-down procedure, but explained that any shift toward more aggressive screening will disproportionately impact trans passengers.

“The body scanner system unnecessarily humiliates trans passengers by highlighting body parts as ‘alarms,’ and that happens because officers rely on snap judgment to determine whether they should push the pink or blue button on the machine. Getting an alarm will cause a pat down, which is invasive and uncomfortable for anyone, but particularly for trans people—not least because it’s a regular occurrence for many trans people,” Wu said.

Hawkins’ experience now joins the long list of other incidents involving transgender (and cisgender) passengers, which have prompted public efforts from the TSA to improve their screening process. They cite ongoing outreach with trans equality organizations, as well as regular sensitivity training for all TSA agents among their efforts at improvement.

However, no amount of training can make up for a cis-sexist body screening system that’s designed to detect passenger genitals. As long as agents select either pink or blue buttons depending on how each passenger presents themselves and as long as the scanning software assumes that all passengers are cisgender (meaning their gender identities align with their birth-assigned sex), trans people will continue to be singled out for “enhanced screening,” and incidents like what happened to Hawkins will inevitably continue.

With Trump in the White House and Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, there’s very little chance for relief for trans travelers in the United States any time soon. DHS Secretary John Kelly, hasn’t made public comment regarding trans people or their rights, but with noted transphobe Jeff Sessions serving as attorney general, trans people have very little legal recourse to protect themselves and their civil rights. And while some trans passengers may have a decent airport security experience, traveling while trans will continue to be an anxiety-ridden event for many.