Last week, United Airlines launched their non-binary gender marker options, which allows passengers to identify their gender as either “M(male), F(female), U(undisclosed) or X(unspecified), corresponding with what is indicated on their passports or identification” upon booking.
Other major U.S. airlines such as American Airlines, Delta, Alaska Airlines, and Southwest Airlines are also considering how they can introduce inclusive, non-binary gender marker options.
While airline companies are embracing this change, they are only one part of the airport experience. As more airlines get on board with welcoming transgender and nonbinary flight passengers, so should the Transportation Security Administration and its agents. The TSA agents, particularly those at the security entrance checkpoint, are one of the first airport authorities on the frontlines, whose interactions and screening practices with transgender and non-binary flight passengers need to be improved.
The U.S. Transgender Survey, which surveyed more than 25,000 transgender and non-binary people, reveals just how many improvements in airports are still needed. Among those who had flown in the past year, nearly 1 in 2 negatively experienced being patted down, searched because of a gender-related item, having the name or gender on their ID questioned, or being detained by TSA agents due to being transgender.
And when you include race and ethnicity, these negative experiences are more pronounced for Middle Eastern and multiracial transgender and gender non-binary passengers, indicating a huge need for racial sensitivity in TSA screening training.
Trans people have historically been subjected to mistreatment at airports by TSA agents. Shadi Petosky’s traumatic TSA experience at Orlando International inspired hundreds of stories documenting how the agency often mistreats trans people at security gates. Petosky's story inspired the hashtag, #TravelingWhileTrans, in 2015.
And it hasn’t stopped since.
A primary personal item that is often pulled out of personal bags and investigated in public by TSA is a chest binder. The item is often flagged by security scanners as an “anomaly,” as described by Casey Brown (@lifewithRoozle), who goes by they/them pronouns. Brown experienced “invasive pat down by the TSA” at the start of their vacation just last week.
Another item examined by TSA unnecessarily and often publically is a dilator, which is a personal item that is medically recommended. Nicole Maines (@NicoleAMaines), who goes by she/her pronouns, described how TSA embarrassingly pulled out her “dilators out of [her] bag for everyone to see.” Not only that this is embarrassing for anyone to experience, but by examining such items publically, TSA risks outing transgender and gender-nonbinary people without their permission and potentially places them in harm's way.
Being misgendered by TSA is also rampant. As Kay Barrett (@brownroundboi), a brown trans disabled artist who quoted a TSA agent misgendering them publically at the Newark Liberty International Airport: “who’s going to search her… I mean him…”, which neither properly address Kay Barrett, as Barrett goes by they/them pronouns.
In addition to these traumatizing experiences, TSA agents commonly and invasively also ask about genitals and inappropriately do patdowns. As described by Jess St Louis (@stlouis_j) and Lele (@veryspecialsoup):
So it’s no surprise that going through airport security gates, one that is designed for and often taken for granted by cisgender people, can become a source of stress, harassment, and rage for many transgender and non-binary passengers. As Sasha Costanza-Chock (@sschock), who goes by she/her and they/them pronouns, puts it:
It’s the right move for airlines like United to launch their inclusive gender marker change, especially in tandem with employee training by partnering with the Human Rights Campaign. But these policies will not be truly great until the TSA does similar by partnering with airline companies and organizations championing transgender rights.
ARJEE RESTAR is a doctoral student at the Brown School of Public Health. Follow Restar on Twitter @ArjeeRestar.