The recent tale of a transgender woman humiliated, demeaned, detained, delayed, and derailed by the Transportation Security Administration has struck fear into some trans travelers and validated the paranoia of others who vow not to travel (or avoid airports) so as to avoid a horror story of their own.
Well, as a trans woman who's traveled the country by nearly every means available, I have something important to tell you: whatever happens, you'll survive.
But I know from my own experience that bad things happen at the airport screening area all the time, ranging from the simply annoying to downright soul-crushing, as in the case of Shadi Petosky. Her friends and supporters created a hashtag on social media to help others share their experiences: #TravelingWhileTrans.
And let's face it, airport insecurity is hardly a new phenomenon.
Petosky’s experience, however, was made even worse by missteps American Airlines made, particularly in trying to spin how poorly its agents handled the aftermath of Petosky's public humiliation at the hands of airport officials.
Frankly, the TSA’s ostrich-like response to the incident involving Petosky was abysmal, swiftly dismissing her claims of discrimination and summarily supporting the agents involved for following policy instead of properly investigating what really happened, as the Human Rights Campaign has demanded.
As I wrote this — instead of packing for my own flight across the continent this weekend — the TSA’s handy online guide for transgender travelers is currently unavailable, returning a "Page Not Found" message. Convenient.
One hopes that’s because TSA is currently rewriting the guide to better serve the trans community. A girl can dream, right?
So where is a trans traveler supposed to turn? Both the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Transgender Law Center have detailed online guides that you can peruse before your next trip. Both guides are long enough to pass the time you’ll spend standing in one of the typically serpentine lines that form at airport security ports.
But I've come up with a quicker, easier and much more fun look at the seven things anyone who's trans or gender-nonconforming needs to know before #TravelingWhileTrans. Creating this handy-dandy guide provided an excellent excuse for me to avoid facing my own evil suitcase, which knows how much I hate packing.
And speaking of loading up the suitcase...
1. Pack Your Bags — Carefully!
Face it, the TSA is going to search your bag, whether you like it or not; first by X-ray, and if something doesn’t look right, by hand. It's for your safety and for everyone who flies. And yes: it takes time, so plan accordingly. Give yourself at least 30 minutes to get through security, and up to an hour, 90 minutes, or two hours depending on the airport, the time of day, and whether it's a busy travel period, such as the getaway day before Thanksgiving or the Sunday after.
The TSA website (when it's working) explains what you can and can’t pack when it comes to carrying items like liquids, and not carrying items like explosives. All medications and supplies, such as syringes, should be placed within a separate bag inside your carry-on luggage.
And if you’re a transgender woman, the bottom line is this: If you're packing breast forms, don’t check that bag! Same advice if you’ve had lower surgery: Place your vaginal dilators near the top of your carry-on, and be prepared for the agent examining that bag to ask what they are and what they're for. Yes, it's humiliating and an intensely personal item to have to discuss with a stranger, but keeping cool and polite will usually get you through this awful experience faster.
2. Whoa! What Is This?
You are entitled to ask for your carry-on bag to be inspected privately, if you don’t feel like having these very intimate items held up for scrutiny in front of dozens of strangers, or your grandma (or kids) traveling with you. The same goes for pat-downs, which we'll get to shortly. Ultimately, all this is to help prepare you, so you remember to pack a massive dose of patience along with your stuff.
Next, let's see some ID, as it's the first thing you'll need to present when you arrive in the security area of the airport.
3. Wait ... This Isn’t You
Herein lies the trans traveler’s worst nightmare: having to out yourself to a stranger with the power to deny you access to your flight. For security purposes, the TSA rules say your name, gender, and date of birth provided to the airline to buy your plane ticket must match the government-issued photo identification you present at the airport.
Even if you have a photo ID that doesn’t match your presentation, you still must present the photo ID that matches the details on your boarding pass. Again: It doesn’t matter whether your current gender presentation matches the gender marker on your ID or that your presentation is a mismatch with your ID photo. All that matters is that the ID and boarding pass match.
So, Jane Doe with an "M" on her driver's license will not be turned away, so long as she indicated she was "male" when she booked her flight reservation. Bill Jones can fly, even with a gender marker of "F" on his ID, provided that's what was provided to the airline when he bought his ticket.
If you're worried that your presentation will still be an issue, you should consider bringing along another supporting document, like a passport, Social Security card, credit or debit card, or a copy of a probate court order changing your name — provided these documents match the name and gender on your boarding pass. TSA officers are not supposed to comment on this if they find a discrepancy. If there is a problem, ask politely for a supervisor, and be patient.
4. Rage Against the Machine (Silently, If You Don’t Want Trouble)
Before explaining how the screening machine works, let’s all take a deep breath.
You’re trans. You’re flying for the first time as your true self. You’re nervous. And it shows.
The National Center for Trans Equality says that could be misread by the TSA as suspicious.
The TSA’s behavioral detection officers use behavior detection techniques to thwart potential threats at airports throughout the country, observing travelers and looking for behaviors consistent with people who are concealing criminal activity.
These BDOs may casually approach you and ask questions about your destination and luggage, looking for further cues. Understandable apprehension about encountering transphobia or privacy invasions could cause you to look “suspicious” to these specifically trained eyes.
If you are approached by a BDO, the NCTE encourages you to answer questions in a straightforward manner. If you encounter any difficulty, ask to speak to a supervisor.
After stripping off your shoes, belt, and any change in your pockets, you're finally about to enter the body scanner. Instead of the old-fashioned metal detectors shaped like a doorframe, most airports today use a tall, glass-enclosed tube that requires you to hold your arms above your head as a large pair of doors spin around your body outside the tube. This full-body screening technology, called “advanced imaging technology,” is intended to screen passengers for weapons or other hazards before they reach the gate.
This technology reveals the intimate contours of every traveler’s body, including breasts and genitals, and any prosthetic device or binding materials, including a packer, binder, breast forms, or other apparatuses used to enhance or conceal various body parts, are visible on the scan reviewed by a TSA agent in a separate room.
When you enter the scanner, the agent must select a "male" or "female" scan based on how they percieve your gender presentation, and because the software is hopelessly binary and gender-conforming, the scan of a trans woman's body may detect something in the groin area between her thighs — such as her penis.
If the software identifies anything it deems an “anomaly,” as in the Petosky case and the equally horrifying experience of this Advocate contributor, TSA agents are required to look at you more closely.
The same goes for a binder compressing a trans man's chest. TSA will typically respond to an "anomaly" with a limited pat-down of the area(s) flagged. But sometimes, these additional screenings involve a full-body pat-down.
The Transgender Law Center offers an important reminder: You have the right to decline screening by the full-body scanner. But if you opt out, you must submit to a manual pat-down search instead.
5. The Pat-Down
This is the only alternative to being scanned by a full-body scanner. The pat-down search is considered by most everyone to be extremely invasive. TSA officers will use their gloved palms and fingers to touch underneath and between breasts, inside thighs, and in the groin area and buttocks. Yeah.
The Transgender Law Center warns: You may be randomly selected for additional screening, including an enhanced pat-down, for any reason, even if you have successfully passed through the full body-scanning machine.
If you are selected for additional screening, you may not opt out, but you can request that the screening be conducted in private. A companion may accompany you during the additional screening.
According to the TSA, pat-downs are conducted by a TSA agent who is the same gender as you are presenting, even if your ID indicates your assigned gender at birth. You should not be subjected to personal questions about your gender, says the NCTE. If TSA officers are unsure who should pat you down, they should ask you discreetly and respectfully.
If you encounter any problem, politely ask to speak to a supervisor, and clearly and calmly state how you should be treated.
6. Take the Train (or Bus)
Let’s consider that maybe flying is not for you. Taking Amtrak or Greyhound still requires a valid, government-issued photo ID. However, train or bus company employees — not TSA agents — will be checking your identification, and gender markers are rarely ever checked. Your gender presentation need not match your ID. The only thing that matters is that your ID matches the name on your ticket.
It may take longer, but there are no screening machines, no baggage fees, and taking a train can be a relaxing alternative to the hassle of #TravelingWhileTrans through the airport. And as a former and frequently dissatisfied bus rider, I can tell you that if you can rough it and you're not in a hurry, Greyhound is the cheapest travel option around.
7. Hit the Road
And just like in the iconic film, another alternative to planes and trains is the automobile. But don’t disregard the perils of #TravelingWhileTrans just because you’re behind the wheel.
Trans professor and author Jennifer Finney Boylan recalled a particularly scary nighttime encounter with a male stranger during a post-transition visit to a gas station in her 2003 memoir, She’s Not There.
Whether you’re traveling alone or with others, be aware of your surroundings, be conscious of the political climate of the state through which you’re driving, and be especially careful using public bathrooms where gender presentation may be enough to cause transphobic members of the public to harass you or incite violence.
In my own experience driving cross-country, taking a train halfway across America, and flying to nearly 40 states in my lifetime, I have ramped up my own safety measures to try to avoid dangers. I have learned to be more cautious about the time of day and the distance I travel alone. I'm more careful about to whom I speak, and yes: I’ve been frequently subjected to having the contours of my breasts probed and even once had my nether regions examined in a private space, where I was thoroughly searched and swiftly released.
For this latest flight, I'm hoping to avoid drama, which is how I approach life. But when you’re trans, sometimes drama finds you.
All GIFs via GIPHY.