About one month after a transgender woman, Shadi Petosky, live-tweeted her detention by Transportation Security Administration agents at Orlando International Airport in Florida, the experience of traveling while trans has been cemented as a national news story.
Dozens of trans Americans have come forward with their own tales, many positive, some triggering, and all revealing that the TSA's screening system as it stands now is inconsistently applied. The social media hashtag that arose in the wake of Petosky's experience, #TravelingWhileTrans, continues to garner first-person accounts of the good, the bad, and the unconscionable regarding transgender passengers' security screenings at airports.
Even Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton noted the need for equality in the country's security space in a Friday tweet when she mentioned a mainstream media outlet that picked up last week's exclusive report by The Advocate:
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 16, 2015
In that exclusive interview, the TSA announced it would no longer use the term “anomaly” to describe any percieved inconsistencies in a traveler's body that require additional screening. At press time, TSA officials had not decided upon new terminology that would be used in place of the controversial word “anomaly.” The agency did, however, note that it is working with LGBT advocacy groups to improve its competency around transgender bodies, including familiarity with prosthetic devices some trans people use to help their outward appearance match their internal gender identity.
But as those conversations — and the changes they will ostensibly yield — have yet to be announced, The Advocate asked transgender travelers to share their stories of their passage through America’s airports. More than three dozen women answered the call.
The first story comes from a woman who has lived full-time in her authentic female gender for more than three years and had never encountered a problem at an airport since beginning her transition.
“No issues here so far,” Brenda reported October 1. But two weeks later, she shared that something had happened, not an “incident” on the scale of Petosky's interaction, but it troubled her nonetheless.
Because Brenda is not out at work, she asked to use a pseudonym in this article, but she did provide The Advocate with copies of her travel documents to confirm her legal name, her female gender identity, and her dates of travel.
Although Brenda has not undergone gender-affirming “bottom” surgery, she contends that she was careful and methodical about “tucking” to conceal her penis during a recent departure from Kansas City, Mo. She has breasts, and all of her legal documents match her authentic female identity.
Hoping to avoid an incident like Petosky's, Brenda tells The Advocate that on her recent trip, she was “extra focused” on making sure her entire gender presentation showed her as the woman she knows herself to be and which her legal documents indicate she is, regardless of anatomy.
“I have social anxiety issues which are triggered in situations like this,” says Brenda, “causing me to sweat excessively and have flashbacks from being illegally detained by transphobic law enforcement,” something that happened a few years ago in another city.
On the morning of October 14 at Kansas City International, Brenda recalls, she stepped out of the full-body scanner and saw a male TSA agent pointing to a spot on the display screen. The agent then asked another male staffer, ”Are you OK with this?"
“This,” Brenda believes, was her penis. The men called over another agent who was a woman.
“The female ran her hands up and down my legs, patted my buttocks, and very slightly ran her hands up my torso and the outer sides of both of my breasts," Brenda says.
When the female agent patted her down below the waist, Brenda says she touched her around her groin, near her pockets, and between her legs, but not directly on her penis.
The male agent who had asked his colleague if he was “OK with this” then swabbed Brenda's palms in what is commonly known to be a search for explosives residue — though she was not informed of the reason for this specific test. Once those results came back negative, Brenda was allowed to proceed to her flight.
She says the agents were not rude, and they did not misgender her or use the word “anomaly.” But Brenda believes the male agents were visibly uncomfortable once her penis was detected by the TSA imaging scanner, thus outing her as transgender. She was not delayed and did not miss her flight, but it was nonetheless a very difficult experience for her.
Summarizing her experience in an email to The Advocate, Brenda acknowledges, in all caps, that “I do not like strangers touching me!”
“That said, I understand the necessity at times,” she continues. “When the TSA agent asked the other agent, ‘Are you OK with this?’ I should have replied, ‘I understand. For the record, I'm not OK with it, either!’”
TSA spokesman Mike England declined to comment on Brenda's specific experience when alerted to it by The Advocate. “However, any transgender passenger that feels as if they’ve been mistreated should call (855) 787-2227,” England says.
Other trans women reported a wide variety of experiences traveling while trans.
“I get flagged and patted down every time,” Greta Gustava Martela writes. “There is nothing in my documents to indicate I'm trans. I guess it's my height? The machines don't think I'm the right shape.”
Jane White has taken 32 flights since transitioning more than a year ago. "My ‘anomaly’ gets flagged for pat-down one-third of the time," she writes. "Most of the time I tell them I'm transgender, and that's probably what is showing up. All but once the agent (always a woman) patted me down and sent me on my way. Once, in Phoenix Sky Harbor Terminal 4, the agent could not clear me, and another agent (again, a woman) came over and started asking me some embarrassing questions like ‘Did you tuck?’ and even ‘Which direction is it laying?’ The last one was a doozy. Who keeps track of that?”
Brettany Renée Blatchley reports positive experiences traveling while trans so far. “All my [documents] are in sync as female," she writes. "And I went on the TSA site and registered a medical condition: I stated that I am a transsexual woman. I've been through TSA and have always been treated as a woman. I own my gender, and I'm not the least bit hesitant about who and what I am."
Brianna Nicole Schuman is a transgender woman who has been on hormone therapy for a year and has not undergone gender-affirming surgery. “In August I flew from [Seattle] to [Phoenix] and back," she recounts. "Zero issues — no misgendering, bathroom callouts, nada — excellent experience. I sailed through TSA with only a minor butt pat-down, (possibly due to sparkly deco on my capris' butt cheek) [in Seattle].”
“There was a period of time when my appearance didn't match my ID," trans woman Robin Knauerhase recalls. "As much as I dislike TSA, [the agents] have actually been really good about everything. I actually once got a deliberate ‘Thank you, ma'am,’ and an unintentional but flattering ‘Is this you?’”
Tuesday Meadows rightfully boasts:
“I have gone though TSA in 12 different domestic airports. The only thing out of the ordinary I actually thought was funny. [It was a] Cincinnati TSA agent checking my ID before I had my legal name change last year. He looked at my picture, [which had been] updated to look like me, and the name on my driver's license. Then he looked at me and said, ‘Well, that certainly is an unusual name for a woman.’ I looked back, smiled, and said, ‘I think my parents were hoping for a boy.’”
“I’ve gone through all manner of scanner,” writes trans woman Jennell Jaquays. “Whenever I've had [an agent say] 'Please wait here,' it's because I've done something dumb, like leave a watch on, or a half-finished water bottle in a carry-on. Even then, the pat-downs have been polite, professional, and gender-appropriate.”
The vast majority of trans travelers agree. Gretchen Lintner, who has been "Traveling while trans" since 2007, says she has no "complaints or stories to share about the gate area deputies." She does note, however, that "the folks who process baggage must be intrigued with my dilators."
Indeed, many trans women who traveled after gender-affirming surgery report similar awkward (if understandable) interactions with TSA agents who were curious about the nature of a dilator, a medical device used to support a trans woman's healing after "bottom" surgery.
Writer Brynn Tannehill best summed up the experience that includes a public examination of a very private apparatus:
TSA agent (upon finding my dilation gear, holds up dilator): What's this?”
Me: “It's a dildo. It goes in my vagina.”
TSA agent (gingerly puts dilator back like it has anthrax): “OK, we're done here.”