How to Mitigate the Stress of Flying While Trans

by Jay Wu

Transportation Security Administration officers in a security line at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Photo credit: Barry Bahler/Department of Homeland Security

The airport security process brings scrutiny onto the bodies, belongings, and identity documents of all passengers. Such an intense focus on how people look, what they are carrying, and how their appearance compares to their documentation can be stressful for many people.

This invasive process has a particular impact on trans people — especially trans people who also belong to other groups that commonly come under suspicion in the airport security process, such as some Middle Eastern or South Asian trans people.

Source: 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey

Discrepancies between how trans people look and what shows up on their identity documents or on the results of a body scanner can lead to harassment and discrimination.

Simply preparing for the possibility of such mistreatment is a stressful process that many transgender people go through before getting to the airport; that said, most of the time, transgender people can proceed through security without incident.

Regardless, it never hurts to know how to mitigate any potential issues and to be prepared to respond to problems at the airport.

Even before passengers get to the airport, the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, is already collecting gender data. Airlines now collect passengers’ gender and date of birth as part of selling plane tickets, as directed by the TSA’s “Secure Flight” pre-screening program. As a result of such screening, passengers may be selected for “enhanced screening” or prevented from flying entirely.

Around two-thirds (68 percent) of people who filled out the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reported that none of their identity documents listed their desired name and gender. For most trans people, therefore, filling out name and gender information to purchase a plane ticket means writing down a name and/or a gender that don’t match who they truly are.

A sample Washington, DC ID card with an X gender marker. Image credit: DC Department of Transportation

Identity documents can also pose problems after arriving at the airport, during the first part of in-person TSA security screening. People whose gender presentation differs from the gender marker or photograph on their identification face increased scrutiny, which has the potential to lead to further harassment.

In addition, while a few states and the District of Columbia have begun issuing driver’s licenses and ID cards with X gender markers, airlines have not yet caught up to this development. As we work to change this, NCTE’s guidance is to select the gender that corresponds with the gender marker on another identity document, like a passport, and to bring that document as backup in case of trouble with the X gender marker.

Transgender people are certainly not the only ones who feel that the TSA’s Advanced Imaging Technology is unnecessarily invasive. However, full-body scanners pose unique challenges for transgender travelers. Since the TSA retired scanners that revealed the anatomy of the person being scanned, the technology relies on comparisons to a “typical” male or female body to detect anomalies, or — in new TSA parlance, “alarms.”

User interface for an L3 ProVision ATD full body scanner. Source: ProVision

Prosthetics or body parts that do not fit the scanner’s algorithm may trigger an alarm and lead to a pat-down. Trans people who must undergo pat-downs are entitled to receive one from an officer of the same gender. This, of course, still poses problems for non-binary travelers. Additionally, some people can opt out of the scanning process, but the alternative is a thorough pat-down, which can be even more difficult and humiliating.

The best course when being asked about prosthetic-, garment-, or body part-related alarms is to explain what they are in a straightforward manner. This can certainly be comfortable, but is the best way to avoid additional screening or further scrutiny.

Last but not least, possessions that some trans people might have, like packers, dilators, and other items can draw unwanted attention from TSA officers. Some USTS respondents, for example, reported that TSA officers loudly questioned them about such items or searched their bags because of the presence of those items. If an item is medically prescribed, it can help to have a doctor’s note explaining its medical necessity. If not, it can help to be prepared to explain briefly and in a straightforward manner what it is.

There are a number of factors that can lead to travel being stressful for trans people, but knowing what they are and how to mitigate and respond to them can be helpful. If you have encountered problems related to being trans at an airport, you have the right to file a complaint with the civil rights offices of both the TSA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security.

For more detailed information on flying while trans and responding if you are mistreated while going through airport security, visit NCTE’s Know Your Rights page.

Jay Wu is the Communications Manager at the National Center for Transgender Equality.