Transportation Security and Trans Experience

What should you do when a person of authority misgenders you in a very public place?

A frazzled photo of me after my most recent negative TSA experience.

After repeated incidents of misgendering, rudeness, and humiliation by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), I decided to submit a complaint via the TSA website, as well as through my own Facebook page. Yes, it’s a long shot as to if they’ll actually read it. However, I wrote it because I felt like if I didn’t, it would further perpetuate the erasure and devaluing of transgender voices that we see so often. Thus, here is the letter, which also shares my experience. I’ve also included some resources at the bottom of this piece so people can learn more about trans folks and how gender works, just in case that may be helpful. In addition, I want to emphasize my privilege in this situation as a white transgender individual. Who knows how this situation would have turned out if I was a person of color.

Dear TSA,
I’m a transgender individual who has been repeatedly misgendered by TSA staff. I am not here to lodge a complaint against any particular individual TSA agent or worker, but I am instead making a strong suggestion of that the TSA consider implementing some form of gender sensitivity training, with a specific component focusing on the just treatment of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.
I want to acknowledge that most people (including myself) have a tendency to make snap judgements about the genders of others in our day-to-day lives, and we’ve all learned what we view as classic markers that relate to specific genders (e.g. men wear ties and have stubble, women wear high heels and have breasts, etc.). However, we live in a time where transgender people are becoming increasingly more visible, with 1.4 million US adults identifying as transgender (based on federal and state data). Since there are approximately 243 million adults living in the US, this leaves us with about 1 out of every 200 adults in the US identifying as transgender or gender non-conforming. Thus, we can estimate that 1 out of every 200 adults passes through the TSA identifies as transgender. (And this doesn’t even include transgender youth.) That’s at least 1 out of every 200 adults whose gender expression may obscure or trouble the gender markers that we’ve all ingrained deep into our minds, which can often lead to misgendering.
This is a huge number of people that have the potential to be misgendered. In addition, even cisgender (i.e. non-transgender) folks are sometimes misgendered — earlier this year, a cisgender person was chased out of a women’s restroom because she was believed to be trans by other restroom occupants. Conversely, there are no documented cases of trans people attacking or ‘preying on’ others in bathrooms; instead, 27 transgender people were murdered in 2016, and two in the first week of 2017. (These murders are mostly of trans women of color, which is a related issue that I won’t get into right now, as it is my duty as a white person to step back and let a person of color tell this story.) It is dangerous to live as transgender person in the US, for we challenge people’s very notions of gender, making them uncomfortable and taking out their frustration on us.
Transgender people are not only disproportionately susceptible to physical violence, but verbal violence as well. I am not here to argue about whether words can be violent (because that is a whole other can of worms — long story short, they can), but I do want to make it clear that misgendering people can lead to many forms of mental and physical violence. Most often, misgendering someone can result in episodes of embarrassment, gender dysphoria, extreme discomfort, and even shame. This can lead to an extremely negative mental state, often involving anxiety and depression. And although I believe that this is most definitely a good enough reason to become more aware of and alter the pronouns we (and the TSA) use on a day to day basis, misgendering situations can also directly and indirectly affect airport security and the TSA. I’ll use my own experience as an example of this:
When I am misgendered, I feel deeply shameful and uncomfortable. While I’m in that headspace, I then must muster up the courage to correct the person quickly — in an airport security line, this means multiple people around me and in line witnessing this uncomfortable situation, and often becoming uncomfortable themselves. Sometimes an agent will apologize to me, sometimes say nothing, and sometimes laugh (yes, this has happened). Alternatively, I can choose to not say anything (which I tend to do more often than not), denying myself any form of dignity or any right to stand up for myself, and letting many people around me know that that person with breasts and long hair is a man, even when she is not, in any way, a man — all in order to avoid ‘causing a scene.’
Today, when I was misgendered at the Philadelphia airport, I became flustered and frustrated, and in this altered mental state lost my boarding pass, further hindering the accuracy and efficiency of security that the TSA values. In addition, the TSA agent that I corrected may have become embarrassed or angry, thus affecting their job performance and efficiency in ensuring transportation safety for all travelers. How could that situation have been different if that TSA agent hadn’t misgendered me? If this agent had been trained (or better trained) on how to address or refer to those that don’t necessarily fit into their preconceived notions of gender expression? In addition, there are many hateful people in the world. If a transgender person is misgendered by a TSA agent, this undoubtedly draws attention to them, making them vulnerable to targeted harassment and violence by others in the airport.
Therefore, since it’s the TSA’s vision (according to their website) to provide “most effective transportation security,” I strongly suggest the TSA not jeopardize the safety and well-being of transgender people such as myself by implementing a TSA-wide gender awareness training. This would help TSA agents to learn alternative ways to address passengers if their gender is ambiguous, make TSA agents aware of polite ways to conduct pat downs for transgender people, and aid TSA agents in understanding the explicit and implicit (i.e. deep-down and perhaps unrecognized) biases they may hold against transgender people, and how this may affect the way they treat the transgender passengers that they interact with every almost every day (again, 1 in 200 adults — I’m sure any given TSA agent interacts with at least 200 adults in one work shift).
Thank you for reading this long but important post, and I really hope that you’re able to implement a training (or improve current training) about gender sensitivity or awareness sometime within the next few months. The effective security of transgender people on the transportation you protect is dependent upon it.

Here are those resources I promised you:

Transgender FAQ (from GLAAD)

National Transgender Discrimination Survey — Report of Findings (from the National LGBTQ Task Force)

Tips for Transgender Allies (from GLAAD)

Transgender Brain Science (from Scientific American)

EVEN MORE Transgender Brain Science! (from a professor of physiology and neurobiology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine)