New TSA Policies Could Make Flying Even Harder for Trans Passengers

For those who, like me, keep a finger constantly on the throbbing pulse of the Transportation Security Administration, two emerging trends should be troubling — especially if you are transgender or have other reasons for holding government identification that doesn't necessarily match the gender and/or name you present with. Policies that could take effect next year may make flying safely that much harder for trans people, and may leave some of us grounded entirely. Changes in which forms of identification will be accepted, and a sneaky rider on documentation regarding security screening opt-out policies, tighten the net on experiences in the security line.

Both of these changes are being presented as necessary for "national security," which is the raison d'être of the TSA, but really they're about the complex dance of security theater that surrounds flying in the United States today. Keeping passengers demoralized and frustrated won't stop determined domestic terrorists — as evidenced by the slew of recent domestic terrorist attacks — but it will make flying a pain for those of us who just want to get from San Francisco to New York without hijacking, blowing up, or otherwise interfering with the operation of an aircraft.

In recent weeks we've had several aviation scares that are making the situation even worse, and of course ever since September 11, we've watched the TSA, airlines, and passengers alike profile Muslims as though they're some sort of imminent security threat. Transgender people, though, have also become easy targets for the TSA as well as airlines, because of tightened restrictions around identity documentation and verification.

While you might not pay much attention when buying airline tickets, transgender people certainly notice the prompt demanding to know our gender and full names, and for those who haven't changed their names or legal gender markers, this requires entering outdated information (and contributing to dysphoria).

Before we even get to the airport we're at a disadvantage, but things get a lot worse at security checkpoints, particularly for trans women, who may be pulled aside about "anomalies" (i.e. genitalia) or have the name and sex markers on their IDs shouted across the checkpoint area, even if it outs and endangers them.

In September, for example, Shadi Petoski says she was detained in Orlando after going through millimeter wave screening because the screener felt there was an "anomaly" on the screen, which Petosky dryly described on Twitter as "my penis." She self-identified as trans, which she was under no obligation to do, and claims she was forced to endure a patdown and detention as her luggage was torn apart, Tweeting all the while.

Mari Brighe, who travels extensively, documented her encounters with the TSA for Autostraddle, and in the wake of Patosky's incident, many more trans travelers spoke up. But for every traveller willing to take to the Internet to document the alleged behavior of the TSA, there are many other trans travelers who are afraid to.

Starting in 2016 under Real ID policies, the TSA may be targeting drivers' licenses (and presumably state ID cards) from nine states, including my very own home state of California, for not adhering to federal guidelines. Passengers from Missouri, Alaska, South Carolina, New Mexico, New Jersey, and Washington will also need to carry alternate forms of ID (the TSA accepts passports, "trusted traveler cards," military ID, tribal IDs, and a handful of other documents). Additionally, IDs from the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands will no longer be acceptable. This means that many travelers will not be able to fly at all, as not everyone has acceptable identification — for example, 46 percent of Americans have passports, and applying for a new passport requires substantial identity verification information along with a minimum $110 fee.

Transgender people are more likely to live in poverty, increasing the chance that they won't have adequate alternative identification and may lack the documents needed to apply for a passport with the right name and gender marker. They're also anecdotally more likely to already be targeted at identification checkpoints and screening stations because TSA agents think they don't "look right," as for when a woman holds an ID with a male gender marker and a masculine name. Traveling without ID is possible, though the TSA advises showing up the airport early, and some claim it's relatively easy to travel without ID, though given the TSA's issues with minorities, it might not be advisable for them to try it.

Real ID laws are going to make it even harder. They'll also increase the risk of outing, with trans people forced to explain themselves, identification situations being escalated through supervisors, and of course the eternally-feared risk and humiliation of "MALE PAT DOWN" shouted across the security area when a woman is clearly the one being singled out for more screening, or vice versa for trans men.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which is handling implementation of the Real ID Act, tells Bustle, "The Department hasn't actually yet announced when the enforcement is going to begin for identification for domestic air travel. We're going to be making that announcement in the coming days. It will be a minimum of a 120 day notice before anything goes into effect."

The other major TSA change is less obvious, and the agency hasn't widely publicized it. In a "Privacy Impact Assessment Update" dated December 18, the DHS provided new guidelines for screeners on handling both millimeter wave equipment and opt-outs. Trans people, like a handful of other fliers, often choose to opt out for privacy reasons, heightened by the fact that they don't want to be targeted by millimeter wave operators for "anomalies" like their own genitals. Additionally, because many of us are pulled aside for patdowns anyway since our bodies look "abnormal," we might as well skip a step.

That's about to change. The money quote is found here: "While passengers may generally decline [Advanced Imaging Technology] screening in favor of physical screening, TSA may direct mandatory AIT screening for some passengers." This change, the document states, reflects concerns that such screening may be "warranted by security considerations in order to safeguard transportation security." No guidance is offered as to when such a step would be "warranted," clearly leaving it to the discretion of individual TSA agents, further adding to the inconsistency at security checkpoints around the country — the last time I flew through SFO, I had an alarmingly meticulous patdown, but when I flew out of JFK recently, the agent barely skimmed key areas, for example.

Bustle is still awaiting comment from the DHS on the Privacy Impact Assessment Update.

It's almost a dead certainty that Muslims and Sikhs will be more likely to have to go through such screening, as will Black women with natural hair, given that all three groups have already targeted for excess scrutiny at checkpoints before. Likewise, transgender people will also likely be required to do so, particularly those who do not present along binary gender norms — whether they're nonbinary, femme men, butch women, or people in various stages of transition. That creates highly increased risks for the trans community, because while the TSA claims it doesn't store or share images (after considerable public uproar), those images are certainly visible to personnel and sometimes passengers as well, and "anomalies" can generate a very public outing.

Agencies like the DHS and the TSA need to be receiving comprehensive training from groups such as the Transgender Law Center on privacy rights and other legal concerns, and they must develop comprehensive guidance to be distributed to all personnel on the legal, respectful, and compassionate treatment of trans travelers. Consistent policy on the implementation of national security measures like these is critical if the agencies wish to justify their usage. To further support trans travelers, the agencies could be assisting them with expedited and subsidized TSA Precheck applications, which allow for much smoother passage through security and a much smaller risk of being flagged (TSA officers can still opt to request additional screening). This differs from the existing system of offering an "escort" for trans passengers, which requires singling them out for attention. Which is dangerous.

The TSA claims that it treats transgender passengers neutrally (and says it won't refer to parts of trans bodies as anomalies anymore), but that hasn't been borne out for trans travelers. Changes like this have a high probability of making the situation worse for transgender people, and highlight the fact that government agencies are ill-equipped to address the transgender community. Given that transgender people are becoming more visible and vocal than ever before, this is a problem that's not going away.