Proceed with Caution When #TravelingWhileTrans After Trans Woman's TSA Horror Story

Shadi Petosky

UPDATE: Read The Advocate's exclusive conversation with TSA officials to find the latest on this story.

The Transportation Security Administration is still in discussions with LGBT organizations and internal leadership about how to update its policies for screening transgender travelers, three weeks after a series of embarrassing and frightening interactions between a trans woman and TSA agents at Orlando International Airport. 

Shadi Petosky live-tweeted her experience, garnering her instant internet fame and sparking Twitter interactions from such luminaries as Jenny Boylan, which got the attention of the TSA.

Publicly, the agency issued a statement on September 21, clearing its agents of any wrongdoing in how they handled Petosky's security screening, as The Advocate reported. However, Petosky tells The Advocate the TSA statement about its "swift and thorough investigation," as well as its conclusion that its agents followed "strict guidelines" based on "evidence" from surveillance cameras and "other information" is a total lie. 

She posted on Facebook last week that TSA spokesman Mike England’s claim of having investigated the incident was untrue:

“They called me three days later to start an investigation. We talked for two hours and I found out a lot. It takes 7 days to get audio/video recordings. Which are owned by the airport, not the TSA. There are many ongoing civil rights investigations within the TSA and they take 30 days minimum. They have to fly down to Orlando and talk to everyone involved.”

But in a conversation with The Advocate today, England sought to clarify that the agency's initial statement referred to the investigation into whether agents complied with current protocol in Petosky's treatment was completed, while a pair of civil rights investigations are ongoing.

"Our initial statement that we put out two weeks ago, when the incident first took place, that referred to our compliance investigation, which was initiated at the airport, and completed by the next day," England says. "What Ms. Petosky was referencing was the civil rights investigation, which was launched a few days after the incident, and which is still ongoing."

In response to a letter sent by 32 Democratic members of Congress asking the TSA to revise its policies on transgender travelers, TSA officials said such revisions are already underway. Kimberly Walton, assistant administrator of TSA's Office for Civil Rights and Liberties, tells The Advocate:

"We have received that letter, and we are actively working a response. However, many of the things that I've said already, apply [to that letter]. As I've said, training was an issue, and I've already indicated that training, we've already been doing training, we have a Transgender 101 that we've provided, that we're going to expand. The other issue is making sure that our website, that we provide clear and readily accessible guidance to the transgender community and that is underway. 

I believe the question of an investigation is raised [in the letter] and as I told you, our civil rights office, along with DHS's civil rights office, has an investigation under way. I think they reference Health and Human Services, and of course we will comply and cooperate fully if there is such a thing; it has not actually been brought to my attention. So we will do that. 

And then finally, it's really around what I've said, and I will repeat, that our policies and procedures are focusing on all of our passengers are treated with dignity, respect, and courtesy. And to the extent that our workforce needs to screen people as they present. If a transgender traveler needs to communicate to us, we provide the venue for them to do that discreetly, and we respond discreetly, and provide them with alternative screening if necessary."

The letter from the congressional Democrats asks the TSA to explain what’s expected of trans folks on its website. 

But as The Advocate reported, the TSA's webpage devoted to transgender travelers began returning a "Page Not Found" error more than a week ago. Officials tell The Advocate that the agency's website is undergoing a redesign, and while the page with trans-specific tips has become currently unavailable, the agency has added a question about trans passengers to its "Frequently Asked Questions" page. While administrators were uncertain whether the same URL will eventually house the guidelines on the updated website, Walton assures The Advocate that a similar page with equally detailed information for trans travelers will be live online soon. 

A transgender woman posted on Twitter a link to what she says is the web archive of that detailed, but now deleted, original page. 

RELATED: The Advocate’s 7 Things To Do When #TravelingWhileTrans.

Petosky talked about her TSA horror story last month with Gay News Radio:

“I’m sure they’ll be a day in three weeks from now when I’ll be, wait, what? Everyone knows my business. This feels awful.”

She described how, after repeatedly testing false positives for explosives, she felt terrified that she might be arrested and placed in a holding cell for males based on her genitalia. 

As she predicted, Petosky is still reeling from the incident, but is far from done fighting for her fellow trans women and men who are #travelingwhiletrans, a hashtag created by friends of Petosky that took off following her ordeal. She tells The Advocate she’s been gathering her own TSA employee testimonials about the lack of proper training for airport agents in regards to transgender travelers:

“I’m being told that there are no written guidleines for trans passengers and only 10 percent of TSA agents have infrequent trans training.” 

Petosky hailed The Advocate for being the first news organization to report on the discrepancy between her actual experience and what she says is an erroneous statement by the agency’s spokesman. “Did they investigate? What are ‘strict procedures?’” she asked, rhetorically. 

The TSA did tweet recently a shout-out to the National Center for Transgender Equality for “ongoing discussions,” which TSA officials confirmed to The Advocate are part of a pre-existing and continuing discussion with stakeholders and advocacy organizations about the unique needs of trans travelers. 

The group responded in a tweet of its own, with a GIF serving as a reminder that trans body parts need respect, too. 

Sunnivie Brydum contributed to this report.

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