A passenger, identified by middle name Olivia in the report, was initially brought in for a search by female agents. But things grew complicated when agents started reaching for her underwear.
"I told her: 'If the issue is what you are feeling, let me tell you what this is. It is my penis,'" Olivia explained.
TSA workers then insisted that Olivia be searched by male agents over her objections. Ultimately, she offered to pull down her underwear to show the agents she wasn't hiding carrying anything but her own body. Only then was she allowed to board the flight.
The findings of the ProPublica investigation show the consequences of failures in sensitivity training at the federal agency.
TSA officials have previously told The Advocatethat they were committed to working with trans groups on improvements. At the same time, the agency until 2015 referred to trans bodies as "anomalies." The new report suggests there has been little progress.
The ProPublica/Herald investigation suggests Olivia's experience is far from unique. The organizations searched through civil rights complaints against the TSA between January 2016 and April 2019. Turns out 5 percent of those, 298 complaints, come from transgender individuals.
But even that number likely underrepresents the complaints involving trans passengers; Olivia's complaint was initially filed as in a different category of "sex/gender/gender identity -- not transgender."
Many other passengers reported TSA agents demanding they pull up undergarments and expose parts as part of invasive searches; many of them have been pressured to expose their genitals.
"Transgender people have complained of profiling and other bad experiences of traveling while trans since TSA's inception and have protested its invasive body scanners since they were first introduced in 2010," said Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality.