In an exclusive conversation with The Advocate, Transportation Security Administration officials contend that they are working diligently with trans advocacy groups to improve training and standard protocol for agents who encounter transgender passengers.
Most notably, TSA agents will stop describing perceived inconsistencies in a person's anatomy when going through a body scanner as an "anomaly," agency administrators told The Advocate. Officials have yet to settle on what term will be used instead to identify a discrepancy that requires additional screening, but they contend they are working with trans advocates and the broader community to arrive at a solution.
Kimberly Walton, assistant administrator of TSA's Office for Civil Rights and Liberty, also suggested that, while the agency implements new guidelines and renews "Transgender 101" trainings, anxious transgender passengers should call (855) 787-2227 to inform TSA of their travel plans, identify themselves as trans, and ask to notify staff working at security checkpoints about their identity before arriving at the airport.
This new focus on how TSA treats its trans travelers comes about in the wake of trans woman Shadi Petosky's live-tweeting of her harrowing experience being disrespected, detained, and delayed while trying to pass through a TSA checkpoint at Orlando International Airport last month. Indeed, the TSA officials who spoke with The Advocate acknowledged the possibility that Petosky may have been mistreated, though an initial compliance investigation found no misconduct. They also stressed that while that compliance investigation regarding Petosky's experience was completed within days of the incident, two separate civil rights investigations, one through the TSA's Office for Civil Rights and Liberty and another through the Department of Homeland Security, are both still ongoing.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Walton and TSA spokesman Mike England reiterated that the entire agency's goal is to ensure "that all of our passengers are treated with dignity, respect and courtesy," as Walton put it. "We emphasize that screening is to be conducted without regard to a person's race, color, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity."
When asked if TSA's written policy explicitly lists sexual orientation and gender identity in its nondiscrimination clause, Walton was unsure, saying she did not have the policy in front of her. Nevertheless, she stressed that for the past few years, TSA has been working alongside transgender advocacy organizations, including the National Center for Transgender Equality and Gender Justice Nevada, to conduct webinar trainings and offer some key TSA staffers with a "Transgender 101" competency training. A spokeswoman with NCTE confirmed that the organization has assisted TSA in such trainings.
However, after reading this story and reviewing TSA's comments, NCTE Director of Policy, Harper Jean Tobin, issued a clarifying statement walking back the organization's involvement with TSA. In an email to The Advocate, Tobin said:
"TSA's response completely misses the point. Whatever they call it, a machine flagging someone for questions or pat-downs of intimate body areas just because of their body parts is unacceptable — no matter how politely officers handle it.
While NCTE offers training to government agencies as a matter of course, our training has so far reached a small fraction of TSA staff who don't actually screen people — but most importantly, they haven't retrained the machines. If TSA is going to rely on body scanners at all — and there is plenty of evidence they're not only too invasive but ineffective — they have to be able to tell the difference between a body part and a bomb. Right now they can't, and that needs to change."
Read on to see The Advocate's complete conversation with TSA officials, including discussions of Petosky's alleged experience, the recent letter sent to TSA leadership from 32 members of Congress demanding that the agency revise its trans screening protocol, and specific advice for transgender travelers who may need to fly before the TSA's website redesign is completed and the page with trans-specific tips is updated or restored.
The Advocate: I have some questions about Shadi Petosky's case, specifically, but first I want to start with the more broad protocol, because I'd like to be able to get a good idea on what TSA's current protocol is when agents encounter transgender passengers at security screenings.
Mike England, TSA spokesman: FYI, we can't really say much about Ms. Petosky's specific case, because it is an ongoing civil rights investigation. We can speak, of course, about our policies, procedures, training, and all of that, so feel free to ask anything you want about that.
OK, that's fine. Let's start with that: What is TSA's standard protocol for when an agent encounters a transgender passenger at an airport security screening port?
Kimberly Walton, assistant administrator at TSA Office of Civil Rights and Liberty: Our policies and procedures focus on ensuring that all of our passenger are treated with dignity, respect, and courtesy. And we emphasize that screening is to be conducted without regard to a person's race, color, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
With that said, we screen travelers as they present. So if a person presents as a female, they are screened as a female. If a person presents as a male, they are screened as a male. If our workforce is not sure, they are trained to discreetly and politely get clarification. But the general rule is that we screen people as they present at a checkpoint.
Can you give me an example of specific phrases agents might use to discreetly and politely ask a passenger how they identify their gender?
Walton: Generally, it probably doesn't come up. Because they screen as a person presents. But I'm sure you've traveled through an airport and you realize that it is a public setting, and so [the agents] are trained to walk closer to the traveler, so as to not be overheard, and simply ask, indicate that they are unsure, and to, if they could self-identify, discreetly, so that that person can tell them how to screen them.
The technology that we deploy, the best technology for the current and historical threat, does require the transportation security officer to either identify the person as a male or female. And that technology, it does depend on human anatomy. And so in a situation where a transgender traveler is coming through the checkpoint, that decision is made based on the way the individual presents.
Since this incident, if you don't mind, I can just kind of tell you a few things, since this incident came to our attention. We've done a number of things, and a number of things are ongoing.
One thing, we went back to our website, our TSA website, to see if we were communicating very clearly and readily, guidance to the transgender community. So we've updated that, but we're still in the process of providing more detail, and once that is complete, we will provide those links to a number of groups that we work with on a regular basis.
We have over 300 organizations that we work with, but specifically, groups that represent the transgender community, like the National Center for Transgender Equality, GLAAD, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; we've also worked with Gender Justice Nevada, and Equality Florida, Equality Illinois, and Equality North Carolina, and additionally the Northern California Transgender Law Center are some of the groups that we've worked with. So we'll be providing them links to our website once we're completed updating the website.
Those are the organizations you've been working with since Ms. Petosky's experience came to your attention?
Walton: Clarification, I will repeat the names. We've been working with these groups for a long period of time. We have a large coalition of over 300 organizations — obviously they represent different groups of individuals — these are specifically the groups that are focused on the transgender community. And so they are NCTE, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Pride Center of New Jersey, Equality Florida, Equality Illinois, Equality North Carolina, Northern California Transgender Law Center, and Gender Justice Nevada.
And we work with these groups on many different levels. One, we provide them a window into our operations, so that they can, outside of any complaint, give us feedback. We also utilize these organizations in some of the trainings that we do, and so I want to turn to training too.
Over the last year, we have provided to our workforce Transgender 101, which covers a number of items, but specifically preferred terms when referring to a transgender woman or man, terms to avoid, so best practices to be used at our security checkpoints, that include things like providing advisement to passengers, making sure you're discreet with a transgender passenger, making sure we offer them a private screening if that is their desire, we will also provide our workforce in this training, information on prosthetics, that the organizations I just mentioned have brought to our attention. And so those are some of the things that we have already been utilizing.
And in fact, the NCTE and Gender Justice Nevada have assisted us in providing that training. Sometimes via a webinar, and sometimes in person.
As a result of this incident coming to our attention, we're going to expand the same training, to provide it more widely to our frontline workforce.
That was going to be one of my questions — if you have this training ongoing. How frequently is it offered, and to what scope of the workforce is it offered, as the TSA undoubtedly employs many people to keep U.S. airports safe?
Walton: We started it last year, and again, the NCTE and Gender Justice Nevada have assisted us in delivering it. Our primary focus was the supervisors of the frontline workforce. And a subset of our workforce called passenger support specialists, who are specially trained to handle a variety of matters.
And after this incident, it became clear to us that we should expand that, and so we are here in the process of working with our office of training to deploy that to all of our workforce on the frontline.
And how frequently do those who've been trained receive "refresher courses,"or is the training a sort of "one-and-done" thing?
Walton: So, it's an ongoing process, and we will work with training to figure out how often in the future we would provide it. That's sort of a part of the ongoing dialogue with the office of training as we expand it.
The other thing, which was already mentioned, is shortly after this incident, my office, the civil rights office here at TSA, and the civil rights office at the Department of Homeland Security, recently went to Orlando to begin a civil rights investigation, and that is still under way and ongoing. Which is distinct from the compliance investigation that was done at the airport.
You mentioned that TSA is actively in the process of revising and updating its internal staff guidelines for how staffers who encounter transgender passengers should interact with those individuals. We have noticed, however, that at the moment, the TSA's webpage for transgender travelers returns a "page not found" error. Can you tell me why that is, or when we might see that page revised or come back online? Because there was a page there previously that outlined some specific steps for transgender travelers.
Walton: I'm unaware it's returning that way, because I had someone on my staff bring me what we had up this morning, so we do have something under our Frequently Asked Questions, and if it's not coming up, then we need to go fix that information. But we are also actively updating the information that would be responsive if a traveler who was transgender went to our website.
OK. I've got the page open now, the URL reads http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/transgender-travelers, and that page returns a "page not found" error. I do see, on the Frequently Asked Questions page, there's a separate option there that discusses transgender people. But there had been prior, a separate page that specifically indicated what transgender travelers should be prepared for, what they should do to be sure they have a smooth encounter. I'm wondering if you all are aware that that page is no longer active and if there's a plan to revive that, or if that page has just been lost into the digital ether, and the FAQ is what is now being offered in place of that dedicated webpage.
Walton: The TSA website was recently redesigned for ease of use by travelers, and as a result of the Orlando incident, we are looking to update the website. So the link that you're referencing, I'm not sure that it will be that link. All I can say is that we are looking to expand information to put up on the website, but it will be consistent with the new design of the website. So I'm not sure that that link will be put back up.
England: If that link is months old, we actually recently redesigned the entire website, so that specific link might be broken. But as Ms. Walton just said, we are actually working to update that portion of the website as we speak.
OK, I understand that. But it sounds like you are still planning to have a dedicated, specific page for transgender travelers, in addition to the bullet point about the screening procedures for transgender persons, which I do see on the FAQ page.
Walton: So, I guess, the format that it will take is still in discussion. What I am committing to is providing more information for the transgender employees. I am not the webmaster here. I will provide the content, and they will place it in the website in the appropriate place.
Good to know. You touched on it briefly, but you said the training, as you currently conduct it, includes supervisors of frontline employees as well as passenger support specialists. Is there discussion ongoing to expand that training to a more broad swath of employees, to the extent of training any employee who might encounter a transgender passenger?
Walton: Yes, that's the goal, is to expand that to all of our frontline workforce, and that would be our transportation security officers.
And do you have a timeline for when that goal might be achieved?
Walton: I do not have a timeline, but we will deploy it as quickly as feasible. Our workforce is always being trained — it's a regular process. And so I will have to work with our training office to find when we can do an end date.
In addition to not traveling with prohibited items like weapons or large quantities of liquid, are there other steps transgender passengers can take in advance to ensure they have a smooth passage through a TSA checkpoint?
Walton: Thanks for that question. The first thing, I want transgender passengers to be assured that our policies and procedures focus on ensuring that all passengers are treated with dignity, respect, and courtesy. As I said, that is critical, in that we train our workforce to conduct our screening without regard to a person's race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. So I would like all transgender passengers to know that.
Second, I would like them to know that they can ask for a private screening. That is available at every airport across this country, if they need to have a private screening.
The other thing is that they can call in to our call center to get information, if they have questions, if they have concerns, they can call in advance. We also have a protocol where, if a person has concerns, that we can even notify the airport in advance of their travel, and the travel itinerary, so they should absolutely call.
We are working to update our website so that it's easy for them to just get information off of their website if they don't want to call.
Is there a specific number we can share with our readers, to direct them where to call if they'd like to notify TSA about their travel plans in advance?
Walton: Yes. Absolutely. And the number is (855) 787-2227.
Does TSA have a response to the letter sent to the head of TSA from 32 Democratic members of Congress, asking for the policies on trans travelers to be revised?
Walton: 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 under way.
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.
Do you have any message on behalf of the TSA to trans individuals who feel that they have been mistreated by TSA in the past?
Walton: I hate to sound like a broken record, but what I want to say to the transgender community is first of all to express any regrets, and that they should bring that to our attention if they do not feel like they have been treated appropriately. But that our policies and procedures are designed to treat passengers with dignity and respect and to make sure that the screening is done appropriately, and that's without regard to whether or not the person's sexual orientation or gender identity. And so that would be my message.
And just to be clear, the statement that you've been reiterating as TSA's official policy does explicitly enumerate that passengers should be screened without regard to their sexual orientation or gender identity? The policy includes those four words?
Walton: So, without having it in front of me, I don't want to say that, but I certainly will say that we train to that. That is certainly what we train to. But without having it in front of me — I can look at it and get back to you. But that is our policy.
Finally, the TSA's use of the word "anomaly" to refer to unexpected results on a body scan has caused a fair amount consternation among the trans community. Is the TSA planning to —
Walton: We are changing that word.
Do you know what you're changing it to?
Walton: We're going to actually work with the — we're working on that now.
England: The short answer is no, we don't know what we're changing it to yet. But we're going to work with the transgender community and figure that out.