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EXCLUSIVE: About That TSA 'Coalition' of LGBT Groups 

EXCLUSIVE: About That TSA 'Coalition' of LGBT Groups 


Screening protocol for transgender passengers is broken. How deep is the agency digging for solutions?


The Transportation Security Administration says it's working with numerous LGBT groups to improve its screening protocol for transgender passengers, but members of the supposed coalition tell a different story.

As horror stories from transgender travelers make headlines locally or spread via social media using hashtags such as #TravelingWhileTrans, media attention repeatedly focuses on TSA's screening procedures. And TSA officials point to ongoing conversations with LGBT advocacy groups as reason to expect policy revisions that will stop trans men and women from being outed or humiliated during screening.

But representatives of several of the organizations identified on TSA's website as part of a "coalition" that "meets regularly to discuss transgender issues, disability issues and medical issues" say TSA has not, in fact, been in touch recently -- or at all -- about ways to revise the screening process for trans passengers.

"The TSA has never met with GLAAD to learn about the transgender community or to discuss its screening process, which continues to be an invasive, humiliating experience for countless transgender travelers," Nick Adams, GLAAD's director of programs for transgender media, tells The Advocate.

Adams had to search a former GLAAD staffer's now-inactive email account to discover what appears to be an invitation to a quarterly phone call about TSA's general policies and procedures. And when he asked current and former staffers if anyone had worked with the federal agency in recent years, no one could recall any interaction.

Even among LGBT organizations that are in regular conversation with the TSA, advocates express frustration that the federal agency, housed under the Department of Homeland Security, is still "missing the point."

"We continue to be frustrated that they are clearly paying attention to the privacy problems that transgender people are having, but they don't seem to be willing to look at changing things that would really solve the problem," says Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Tobin says her group has worked with TSA since 2009, even winning a community partner award last year. She confirmed that NCTE has been involved in hosting competency webinars and training events for "a small slice" of supervisory TSA staff known as passenger support specialists, who are not the agents directly screening passengers at checkpoints.

"We have given them a lot of information and advice over the years," says Tobin, "on everything from basic terminology to understanding things -- what kind of situations might come up with transgender people."

Even so, NCTE is involved in a federal lawsuit against the TSA for alleged violations of privacy that it says are perpetuated by the use of full-body scanners. The effectively naked photos those scanners produce lead to transgender travelers inordinately being singled out for investigation compared to other travelers.On Friday, a federal circuit court ordered TSA to respond within 30 days to NCTE and other plaintiffs' request for a timeline of when the agency will issue rules about what it says is and is not legal for the body scanner program.

"Our view has been that there's not evidence that the body scanner program really protects airline safety," says Tobin, who argues the program forcibly outs transgender people. "And it certainly is invasive of privacy."

On TSA's "Frequently Asked Questions" web page, the agency identifies nine organizations it says are helping improve the process, including NCTE, Pride Center of New Jersey, Equality Illinois, Equality North Carolina, and Gender Justice Nevada. The page also names members of the "TSA coalition," including GLAAD, Equality Florida, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and the Transgender Law Center (though it misidentifies two of those groups).

TSA FAQ page

Mike England, national spokesman for TSA, tells The Advocate the agency has "been very pleased with results of our interactions with advocacy groups" through the coalition mentioned on its site and other interested parties. England says it's led to recent updates to TSA screening protocol. Sikh passengers and other religious individuals, for example, can now wear their faith-based headgear throughout the screening process, or elect to remove it in a private screening area.

While TSA's Multicultural and Disability Coalition was established more than a decade ago, England explains that "in the past two years we renewed efforts to recruit members who can help TSA understand the specific needs and issues of certain communities." The coalition holds quarterly teleconferences, according to England, with an in-person coalition conference held every September.

England explains the original impetus for the coalition and how its goals have since shifted:

"TSA recognized early on that security screening must include consideration and compliance with civil rights and civil liberties requirements, and we understood that there are advocacy groups who represent multicultural, disability, and medical condition communities who could help us understand the issues. Our goal was to establish relationships with the traveling public and people who could be forthright and expansive about security screening issues for certain populations. That goal grew to include using the expertise of Coalition members to help develop and even deliver training to TSA's front line officers, including training on transgender issues.

"The Coalition membership has almost doubled in the last year, but we have recognized that we need to update the list to ensure that individuals and organizations who have not actively participated recently do want to continue as members of the Coalition. Additionally, with a larger number of members, we hope to improve the list by ensuring members' equities are adequately identified. This will help us reach the appropriate Coalition members when we are working on a specific issue for which we would like input."

When it comes to sensitively screening trans passengers, England points to TSA's ongoing interaction with NCTE, detailing the fruits of that relationship:

"NCTE assisted the [TSA] Multicultural Branch in developing Best Practices for Passenger Support Specialists on interacting with and screening transgender travelers; NCTE also worked with the Office of Security Operations (OSO) to develop a screening procedure for compression vests based on a traveler complaint involving the unbuttoning of a shirt; NCTE worked with OSO to assist a transgender traveler with screening after calling TSA Cares; and NCTE worked with OSO regarding transgender terminology (i.e., 'purports' v. 'presents'). Very recently, we have had some preliminary discussions with NCTE about the future of transgender screening and the current proposal to discontinue using the word 'anomaly' at the security checkpoint."

For her part, Tobin takes care to note that the officials she and other NCTE staffers have worked with have been "very cordial."

"They've never outright dismissed our concerns or questions," says Tobin. "But one gets the strong impression that the things that we think really need to change are above their pay-grade."

TSA is a large agency, with thousands of staffers who interact with millions of travelers daily. So substantial change comes slowly to an organization that has a vital, security-focused mission at its core. Tobin and the other groups acknowledge that reality, but she says, "It seems to me that they are valuing the status quo over the civil liberties of passengers -- and not just trans passengers, although particularly trans passengers."

When contacted by The Advocate, several of the organizations currently listed on TSA's website confirmed their ongoing relationship with the agency. Many noted cordial, professional, and welcoming experiences, even while frustrated by the slow pace of progress.

The Transgender Law Center confirmed that it "has been in contact with the TSA and [has] begun the process of giving them feedback" about security screening procedures for transgender travelers. Likewise, Equality Illinois confirmed that it has been working with TSA to provide trainings, so-called Trans 101 courses, and general guidance in how to respectfully address transgender travelers.

Equality North Carolina also confirmed that it has been working with TSA for the past six months on trans competency initiatives. Matt Hirschy, Equality NC's director of advancement, tells The Advocate that he's met with a policy advisor in the multicultural branch of the TSA's Office of Civil Rights and Liberties.

"Most of our discussions have been with the understanding that we are available to be a resource to the TSA at airports in North Carolina (mostly Charlotte and Raleigh)," said Hirschy in an email. "I think the agency has taken a broad approach of inviting as many partners into this discussion as they can, and we've helped them to involve more state equality groups. With that being said, I do believe that they have a long way to go."

That evaluation was echoed by leaders at Gender Justice Nevada, a group that TSA officials frequently referenced in an interview with The Advocate earlier this month. Gender Justice Nevada confirmed it has worked with TSA to conduct trans competency trainings, but leaders expressed disappointment that TSA officials failed to follow up on those initial trainings, which took place in July 2014.

"Participants in the training were professional and respectful," writes the group's director, Jane Heenan, in an email to The Advocate. But while Hennen is "heartened to know that TSA locally was interested in continuing these trainings," things ended the way she expected.

"We are not surprised that TSA has not been back in contact with us," writes Heenan, "as our experience over many years regarding state institutions and their interactions with transgender persons teaches us that such institutions are not interested in meaningful change, but rather are trying to do what they must to comply with changing laws and regulations."

Similarly, a representative for the National LGBTQ Task Force was unaware of any current discussions between that organization and TSA officials, suggesting that "there might have been a confusion about a 'task force.'" The Task Force noted a long list of successful collaborations with other federal agencies, however, including with the Department of Justice on protecting transgender individuals. But the spokesperson wasn't aware of any recent conversations between the Task Force and TSA, or any office housed under the Department of Homeland Security.

Among the LGBT organizations mentioned on TSA's website detailing its coalition, Equality Florida has had the most engaging and recently fruitful conversations with TSA.

Florida is also home to one of the most notorious cases of TSA's treatment of a trans passenger, with national attention ignited after Shadi Petosky live-tweeted her humiliating detention at Orlando International Airport September 21. Petosky's tweets went viral, sparking the social media hashtag of #TravelingWhileTrans where other trans travelers have detailed their own struggles to pass through TSA checkpoints at American airports.

In a series of tweets that must be read to be believed, Petosky detailed the way TSA officials addressed her in the terminal after a body scan showed an "anomaly," which she interpreted to be her penis.

"TSA agent Bramlet told me to get back in the machine as a man or it was going to be a problem," she wrote.

After 40 minutes, two full-body pat-downs, and "fully disassembled luggage," Petosky had missed her flight. She spent the next several hours attempting to book a flight out of Orlando at her own expense. When she began crying, Petosky says she was removed from the airport by police.

"When the police officer asked me what sex I was I told him I wasn't [going] to respond," Petosky wrote that night. "He said this was not a game. Are trans civil rights?"

The next day, Gina Duncan, Equality Florida's director of transgender inclusion, reached out to TSA officials in Orlando.

"I had a very positive and engaged conversation with some senior leadership of TSA at their offices in Orlando," Duncan tells The Advocate by phone, noting that the meeting on September 29 included the agency's federal security director for Orlando, a manager and policy adviser for TSA's Office of Civil Rights and Liberties, and two officials from the Department of Homeland Security. "They indicated that they very much wanted to receive input from LGBT organizations in reference to their position on transgender flyers. And they have been very open with me and Equality Florida, as far as ideas on how to better support transgender flyers so that transgender travelers are not discouraged from flying due to a fear of going through TSA."

Duncan applauds agency leadership for seeking dates when Equality Florida could host webinars with TSA staff in Orlando, and also for the warm reception she says the group received when making suggestions about changes to the TSA Cares program, a hotline where travelers can call and address concerns.

A number of the groups applauded the agency's recent announcement that its agents will stop referring to perceived inconsistencies in body scans of trans people as "anomalies" -- a word Petosky and others have encountered. Equality Florida tells The Advocate the agency is concentrating on finding a different phrase -- "less offensive than 'anomaly,'" according to Equality Florida -- to alert agents to a passenger who requires additional screening.

"We suggested 'unexpected image,' since that shifted the focus from the person's body to the perception of the security officers who are trying to do their jobs," says Equality Florida communications manager Jim Harper. "In other words, 'anomaly' suggests there's something odd or wrong with the person's body. 'Unexpected image' does not."

But finding new terminology is just a band-aid fix for the underlying problems with TSA's screening of trans passengers, say several trans advocates who have worked with the agency.

"The basic problem, in our view, is that no one should have to have additional screening on sensitive body areas when there is no foreign object there to identify," wrote NCTE's Tobin in an email to TSA officials obtained by The Advocate. "They should not have to explain their body parts during screening. No matter what language is used, it is invasive and humiliating. In other words, TSA needs to prevent that from happening, not to call it something different when it happens."

Tobin's email on behalf of NCTE continued:

"If body scanners continue to be a primary form of screening -- which we believe they shouldn't -- it should be a priority to enable them to distinguish between the body and a foreign object.

"And until such a change can be fully implemented, procedures should focus on resolving items flagged by scanners with a minimum of intrusion or discussion, particularly when travelers say they don't have any item on their person in the area indicated.

"For example, if sending the traveler back through the scanner on another setting, without question or commentary about the traveler's gender, would likely be sufficient to resolve it, that would be an improvement. Allowing a self pat-down and hand swab, again without intrusive questioning, would also reduce the invasion of privacy. Again, though, we have to stress that such steps would be a matter of mitigation, not a real solution."

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Sunnivie Brydum

Sunnivie is the managing editor of The Advocate, and an award-winning journalist whose passion is covering the politics of equality and elevating the unheard stories of our community. Originally from Colorado, she and her spouse now live in Los Angeles, along with their three fur-children: dogs Luna and Cassie Doodle, and "Meow Button" Tilly.
Sunnivie is the managing editor of The Advocate, and an award-winning journalist whose passion is covering the politics of equality and elevating the unheard stories of our community. Originally from Colorado, she and her spouse now live in Los Angeles, along with their three fur-children: dogs Luna and Cassie Doodle, and "Meow Button" Tilly.