Traveling As A Trans Or Non-Binary Person: TSA Scans And Other Things To Know About Airport Security

by Amber Leventry
Scary Mommy, Radoslav Zilinsky/IkonStudio/Getty

Transgender people are asked to provide proof of identification when renting a car, checking into a hotel, or getting onto an airplane—which is fair—but nothing is universal when it comes to transgender rights, so we’re often forced to prove our right to exist. No transgender person is ever obligated to tell you they are transgender. No person, regardless of their gender identity, is required to follow society’s idea of what it means to be a certain gender. But the risk of expressing your identity outside of gender norms can be dangerous. This is especially true for transgender and gender nonconforming travelers because we often find ourselves in new territory without knowing if said territory is safe, especially in airports.

We are who we say we are, but there are times when we need to choose between chosen names and legal ones or a gender that’s incorrect but still considered the only legal choice based on state and federal laws. We go through physical scrutiny in binary security systems that follow heteronormative assumptions. Flying when transgender is exhausting and terrifying for a number of reasons.

Airport Anxiety

Airports cause me and other transgender folks too much anxiety. In addition to very gendered language and bathrooms at airports, the need to show my ID and then go through TSA security and their Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) makes me nervous and feel unsafe at times. Flying when transgender means I and many other transgender people are often stopped, questioned, flagged, and asked to step aside when going through security.

TSA reminds travelers that when making airline reservations, your name, gender, and date of birth needs to match the same information on the government issued ID you present at the airport. Any conflicting information could cause delays and hassles at check-in. This could mean you will be misgendered or deadnamed while checking in if legal documents have not been changed to your chosen name and correct gender. People under the age of 18 are not required to show proof of ID at check-in and security.

The act of showing up as our true selves sets off the security software if it senses one or more “anomalies” and alarms the TSA agents to look closer at our bodies. While the images of our actual bodies are not seen by humans, the machines register body lines not typical for a person’s gender based on what the machine was programmed to believe is either a male or female body based on what the agent chooses.

If the machine sees a penis when it thinks it is scanning a woman’s body, the machine is likely to go off because the machine is designed to read cisgender bodies.

I am androgynous-presenting, have had my breasts removed, and my license has an X to indicate my nonbinary identity. I almost always set off the machine.

Binders, prosthetics like breast enhancements or packers, wigs, and other gender affirming articles are likely to set off the machine too. While this is embarrassing, time consuming, and frustrating it’s also a safety issue. Depending on the discretion an agent uses when a pat down is required, there is a very real chance that a transgender person will be outed to several people waiting and watching.

A ProPublica report found that from January 2016 to April 2019, 5% of civil rights complaints (298) were related to transgender people being screened. This is massively disproportionate to other travelers, especially considering that transgender folks only make up about 1% of the U.S. population.

While TSA isn’t making any efforts to change the way things are done any time soon or making apologies for the current system, they do give very clear what-to-expect procedures when you arrive at the airport.

Tips And Suggestions

While I hate feeding into the binary systems that surround me, I also know I want and need to get on my flight without delay and surprises that I could have potentially controlled or minimized. I shouldn’t have to but before I make my way to the airport I prepare myself to be misgendered. This lowers my expectations in a way that makes it easier to navigate through check-in, security, and boarding. It’s also helpful to give yourself extra time in case you are held up during any of these stops.

And if you are carrying syringes for hormone therapy or any other medical equipment like a dilator, get a letter from your doctor or keep the pharmacy labels and paperwork that explains the necessity of each item.

When I had to fly home after top surgery, I wasn’t able to lift my arms over my head and my chest was tightly wrapped in ace bandages. To prepare for this, my surgeon wrote a letter that explained the situation so I could have “proof” while going through security. I was also prepared to verbally explain the situation to the TSA agents and did so before I went through the scanning machine. The agent didn’t ask to see the letter but asked if she could perform a gentle pat down. I agreed and she then cleared me through.

If your binder or prosthetic flags the AIT and you are asked to step aside, your best bet is to give brief and direct explanations to avoid further delay. “You are seeing my packer. It allows me to pee while standing in the men’s bathroom.” Or, “Those are breast enhancement pads that increase the size of my chest so that my presentation better aligns with my identity.” Continue to provide honest answers and stay calm. This will help you file a complaint later if you are held up or harassed.

Some transgender folks prefer to sign up for TSA PreCheck. For $85 you can fill out an online application and provide fingerprints at an approved enrollment center. PreCheck means no or fewer body scans because metal detectors are used. This often results in fewer pat downs. It also allows folks to keep on their belts and shoes.

Your Rights

Any person can ask for a pat down instead of going through the AIT machine; it is your right to do so. You can also ask for a private screening; the pat downs must be performed by a person of your same gender identity. As a nonbinary person, I pick the gender of the person and witness I want to conduct the screening. You are also allowed to ask to talk to a supervisor at any time.

You should not be asked to lift or remove any articles of clothing or reveal or remove any prosthetic or item that set off the AIT machine. If this request is made, you have the right to refuse and should then request to speak to a supervisor.

If you experience discrimination or any biased treatment, you have the right to file a complaint to both TSA and the Department of Homeland Securities. When filing a complaint The National Center For Transgender Equality offers more resources and provides language on how to report transgender-related complaints due to body scanners.

Transgender Youth

TSA has adopted different screening processes for children under the age of 12. They are allowed to keep on shoes, are allowed to pass through metal detectors or AIT machines several times to clear an alarm, and instead of the use of pat downs a wand to detect chemical traces of explosives is used. In the event a pat down is requested, it should be done under the direction and supervision of a parent and should be done in a less intrusive way. If you are the parent of a transgender child, no matter their age, you can quietly and directly explain the reason for the machine’s alarm and ask to bypass a pat down.

Transgender folks go on vacation, travel for work, and cross state lines to see friends and family. We navigate the world the same way cisgender folks do. But for us, there are more hurdles, risks, and things to worry about when we leave the house. While we have to make concessions at times, we never have to sacrifice our rights or dignity when fighting for them.

You are beautiful and deserve to travel to any destination you need or want to go.