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What It’s Like to Go Through TSA Screening When You’re Trans

A newly reintroduced bill may bring back a shred of dignity to air travel for transgender passengers

I’m just lucky, I guess. Airport security guards always pick my suitcases to rummage. They leave a note, which is how I know. But the body-scanner business — the whole take-off-your-belt, take-off-your-shoes, empty-your-pockets routine — is the worst of what I endure. I’ve never been probed, detained or taken out of line for a private screening; I’ve never been forced to miss my flight. Getting to be just as bothered as nearly every other passenger must mean I’m a fortunate guy, because I boldly travel while trans.

I’ve heard horror stories from some of my trans friends who fly, though. One of them keeps getting strip-searched every time she goes to the airport. Not patted down: I mean she has her body cavities investigated. I’m certain she’s not making bomb jokes. There’s no other explanation for this treatment other than her signifiers not all lining up to tell a comforting, familiar story of binary and essential gender.

When my friend first told me what she endures to fly, we were attending a transgender conference. I wondered how many people in the room had been humiliated or terrified by airport security that day in order to join us. And worse yet, how many simply had stayed home rather than be outed or detained?

In a public Facebook group I administer for transgender men, members say they’ve had their bound chests scrutinized by airport security and their groins patted down, with and without packers. (“Should I pack to fly?” means something very different in this group than it would almost anywhere else.) They worry about whether it’s okay to bring syringes and testosterone — which is a controlled substance — on vacation, or miss a dose and risk the mood swings that come with a hormonal deficit. They want to know if they’ll be hassled by security because their passport still lists the gender assigned to them at birth.

A 2015 national survey found that 43 percent of transgender people who had flown in the past year had a negative experience at airport security related to their transgender status. Add that to the self-estimated 99 percent of travelers who had insufficient legroom on their last flight, and you’ll begin to understand how the many small aggressions of flying add up for transgender travelers.

Yet there is hope. A bill reintroduced to Congress last week by New York Rep. Kathleen M. Rice, a Democrat, would require the TSA to explore more discreet, gender-neutral procedures for screening passengers. It’s the Screening With Dignity Act, H.R. 6420, originally introduced in December 2016. This bill is intended to reduce the humiliation and danger to transgender passengers. If passed, the TSA would have 180 days to report on the costs to implement body-scanning methods that don’t require an officer to assess a person’s gender.

What a body scanner flags as alarming or aberrant is, to some degree, a secret: to prevent criminals from gaming the system. What is flagged currently depends on whether the TSA officer decided a passenger was presenting as male or as female that day. There is no “Other” or “N/A” button on the body scanner. Other countries use a gender-neutral scanning algorithm; the U.S. could, too.

Having a body part where the algorithm doesn’t expect one sets off an alarm (what the TSA now calls an “anomaly”). Items such as the underwires in the cups of bras, metal clasps closing an ACE bandage and even loose-fitting clothing can throw a flag, requiring a follow-up pat-down from a TSA officer.

After comics writer and television animator Shadi Petosky was reportedly detained in the Orlando airport because the body scanner detected an “anomaly” (Ms. Petosky tweeted that the anomaly was, in fact, her penis), the TSA changed some of its procedures. Yet the heightened scrutiny of transgender passengers continues. The Screening With Dignity Act will require that TSA officers be trained on screening transgender, nonbinary and gender-variant passengers without being intrusive or indiscreet. The TSA also would be required to report on the number of self-identified transgender people who are submitted to pat-downs or even more invasive screenings beyond the body scanner.

Post-9/11, the TSA has been empowered to harass air travelers with any methods it deems necessary, and yet, it’s failed to demonstrate the efficacy of its theatrics. Travelers have missed flights and been held against their will for hours in airports because they’re transgender, or because of their religion, or for using an assistive device or even for having a name that inspires xenophobia in the TSA officer on duty. Years of backlash have forced airport security to make small concessions out of respect to the very old and very young, people with medical conditions and certain other groups who have been overly burdened by the security requirements of air travel. It’s nowhere near enough.

I also travel while anxious, fat and middle-aged, so I like to focus on my personal comfort when I fly. (This involves a proprietary combination of pharmaceuticals and alcohol, as well as a novel in hard copy.) What isn’t comfortable is the threat of being outed against my will.

For transgender people, the body scan and pat-down can be dangerous: It can out us to fellow travelers, even people we’re traveling with who may not know our status. They, or perfect strangers in line, may react negatively, even with violence, to this highly charged and private knowledge. Standing in line at the airport, it’s no one else’s business that I’m trans, not even a security officer’s — yet I may still be obliged to out myself if I fly today. The transphobe behind me in airport security might be sitting next to me for the next several hours, knowing something about me that I’d never have told them myself.

My body parts aren’t “anomalies,” nor are they security threats. Unlike with shoes, no one has ever tried to use a pack-n-play to hijack an airplane. So all I want is what anyone in line at the airport wants: to pay too much to squeeze myself into a poorly ventilated tube and be safely hurled to my destination.