New TSA Requirements Pose Risks to Trans Travelers

Those of us who have been to the airport in recent years know that it is a much larger hassle than it was in pre-9/11 days. (Remember back when friends and family could come with you and see you off at the gate?) But as is usually the case, it’s a much bigger hassle for some people than others, and the increased frustration and outright harassment tend to fall along lines of oppression. If you breastfeed, you may be harassed about your pre-pumped milk. If you have a disability, you may be harassed about medical devices that are unfamiliar to screeners. If you have a certain national origin or heritage, or dress in accordance with certain religious customs — meaning, if someone could read you as Arab and/or Muslim — you may be harassed on the basis of racial profiling.

And if you’re transgender, you might be harassed on the basis of your government-issued identification, and whether or not it “matches” with your gender identity and presentation. Thus, the very real fear surrounding new regulations being implemented by the TSA:

Airlines this week will begin requiring some people making reservations for domestic flights to submit their dates of birth and genders as part of a screening process aimed at keeping boarding passes out of the hands of suspected terrorists, the Transportation Security Administration said.

The agency said the screening would all play out behind the scenes, meaning there should be no additional delays for passengers at airport terminals. The change will be phased in starting Saturday. Not all airlines are fully participating yet and might not request the data.

The TSA said it would be up to individual airlines or travel agents to decide how to collect the required information at the time a reservation is made. The program, called Secure Flight, is aimed at meeting congressional mandates, including those passed in 2007 to put into practice recommendations from the commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks. The government’s goal is to vet all passengers on domestic commercial flights by early next year.

Several others have already written about these new requirements: I strongly recommend checking out Helen, Monica, Jos, and Belledame.

The first thing that occurred to me, which thanks to cis privilege never had before, is that even without these new rules, flying was already likely an additionally difficult and stressful situation for many trans people. All situations which require identification have the potential to be such. Even without the requirement to put down one’s gender as a part of the ticket booking process, there’s nothing stopping an airline employee from taking a look at a person’s ID — which thanks to cis-supremacist government bureaucracy is often very, very difficult to correct — and deciding that the photo, name, and/or sex indicated on it don’t match the gender identity of the person standing in front of them, and publicly asking all kinds of intrusive and outing questions. For me, being forced to show my identification numerous times before boarding a flight is comparatively the most mild of annoyances. For a trans person, it can be a risk to personal safety.

And so it’s no wonder that many trans people are deeply concerned about this new standard effectively resulting in a “no match, no flight” rule. The matter is being left up to individual airlines to implement, and as many airlines likely won’t even discuss or consider the needs of many trans passengers in advance, to individual employees. And in a world where employers feel comfortable demanding photographs of trans people’s genitals as a condition of employment, and where trans identity is routinely and openly mocked and delegitimized on mainstream television, that’s a dangerous, toxic mix.

We’re looking at employees wondering and asking why the woman standing in front of them has an “M” on her driver’s license, and still even quite possibly being unsatisfied with the answer. We’re looking at people who identify as neither man or woman being forced to choose one, and hope that the airline employees read them as the one they chose. We’re looking at other passengers who are decidedly not trans-friendly overhearing the conversation. We’re looking at trans people yet again being forced to modify their dress and actions according to prejudiced cis standards and then being asked what the “big deal” is. And we’re quite potentially looking at certain people being refused the right to travel.

And, as Helen points out, the actual benefit that such a measure would have is dubious at best. Seemingly, it’s intended to increase the effectiveness of a list that is ineffective and quite arguably unconstitutional. I feel no safer knowing that I can’t bring a bottle of water through security, or that a person has to throw out their nail clippers or be unable to board, and so I sure as hell feel no safer knowing that the TSA is trying to determine the gender of all travelers, and causing pain to and enacting discrimination against oppressed people in the process. And really, why on earth would I? How will this legitimately make anyone safer, even if it wasn’t making other people less safe in the process, and especially when it is?

To learn more about the gender requirements in the Secure Flight program, and how they could potentially affect you, check out this FAQ from The Center for Transgender Equality.

UPDATE: Please also see GallingGalla’s comment which discusses further grave risks posed by the new TSA requirement, including the direct threat of violence, including but not limited to sexual assault.

0 thoughts on “New TSA Requirements Pose Risks to Trans Travelers

  1. Katrina

    Ugh. I don’t even understand the purpose of this.

    Reminds me several months back when I was driving my trans friend to an event on an army base, and we both had to show ID to get on the base. We were a little worried because she was there in a dress but her ID identifies her as male and with her male name and even the picture looks male since it was before she came out. Thankfully, they just waved us on through without issue. I’m sure many others aren’t that lucky. 😦

  2. Kate

    Soon after 9/11 I was flying from Seattle to Boston and was singled out to be hand screened. I sat and waited and waited as the crowd of TSA agents staring at me and talking quietly grew. I was getting really nervous, mostly that I would miss my flight but also of possible violence. I wondered if the issue was my insulin pump – did they think it was an explosive? Was it something in some kind of FBI file – my activist past? Was it that I was an obvious dyke?

    Finally a TSA agent came over and said, “I do not want to offend you but I need to ask you if you are a man or a girl so I can assign an agent to pat you down.”

    My gender identity hadn’t even crossed my mind until that point. I didn’t know what to say, I wasn’t asked for ID, so I just said, “I’m a woman”, but my identity in that moment changed. Gone were my assumptions that when people look at me with hostility it is about being female, being queer or being fat – now I had to consider the possibility that the hostility was about transgender issues. Now transgender issues were something that were relevant to me.

  3. GallingGalla

    Good article, Cara, but i need to mention that the potential risks go beyond what you stated.

    First, as Kate mentioned in her comment, their is a tremendous risk of trans folk being detained, arrested, raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. and this will only increase as more airports install the whole-body scanners that effectively strip off one’s clothes and reveal one’s genitals to the machine’s operator. this will be an instantaneous “the genitals don’t match the gender, we have a terrorist” alert that will guarantee abuse, and this is a trap that intersex people will fall into as well. These machines will reveal that i have both breasts and a penis, so even if i try to present as male, i will still be trapped.

    Second, this affects every trans and intersex person, including those who have already chosen to stop flying. How? Because our government is telling mus, quite frankly, that we are not human and that we are, by our *very existence*, a threat to national security. i did not vote for Obama to have his administration tell me that they’d prefer that i don’t exist.

  4. Cara Post author

    Hey GG,

    Thanks so much for the comment and your additional insights. I’ve just added a note to the post telling readers to be sure to check out your comment for what I missed.

  5. Butterflywings

    I can’t help feeling this is panic over…not very much.
    Let me first say, I am *all for* *not* requiring people to state their gender or at least offering the option of ‘neither male nor female’ or ‘choose not to say’ etc.
    Nor am I against trans people.

    But. It is actually quite possible for people to change their official gender on their ID, and does not, yep, does *not*, require the person to have surgically transitioned. Changing one’s name is also not that big a deal.

    I also don’t think the world is that full of hate against trans people, and the threat of rape or assualt by airport or airline staff just sounds…bizarre. There are regulations. It just isn’t realistic that they are going to spirit the trans person off to some back room – I doubt there is someone where no-one ever goes, and I doubt searches etc. happen without supervision thanks to the obvious threat of allegations of assault.

    Kate, I fail to see why you had a problem with that. I assume you wouldn’t want a male searching you?

    1. Cara Post author

      Butterflywings, as I started reading your comment I was going to rebut point by point, but now that I’ve read it all the way through, all I can bring myself to have the patience to do is ask: who the hell are you, how did you get here, and why the fuck would you think that saying “I also don’t think the world is that full of hate against trans people” is something that would fly here?

      If you want to be willfully ignorant on trans issues, and call the very real things that trans people struggle with every single fucking day easy and no big deal, that’s up to you, but you’re not at all welcome to do it here.

  6. slee

    It frightens me that we keep narrowing the box on who a person is, and looking for more ways to marginalize, discriminate, and impose restrictions on people.

  7. Genevieve

    It’s really easy to dismiss something as unimportant and peoples’ reactions to it as bizarre when it’s not your safety, comfort, or life that’s on the line. I suppose being compassionate and doing the work to find out what this might mean to someone who’s not just like you is just too much work for some people.

  8. GallingGalla

    ye gads, i just popped back here to link to this article for a post of mine, and saw butterflywings’ comment. that is one of the most ignorant, arrogant comments i have seen in quite a while.

    i sometimes cannot stop myself from fisking such ignorance, especially when it is obviously willful and backed by hate. so here goes:

    It is actually quite possible for people to change their official gender on their ID, and does not, yep, does *not*, require the person to have surgically transitioned.

    some fucking -proof- please? have you looked into it? i have, because i am fucking TRANS, which you obviously are not. the vast majority of US states, as well as the US Federal government, requires you to have surgery before you can change the gender marker. The remaining states do not permit a change under any circumstance. surgery is very expensive, is not covered by insurance, and is difficult to obtain with all of the ridiculous gatekeeping that one has to deal with. but you would not know that, because you did not bother to research that before spouting your nonsense.

    Changing one’s name is also not that big a deal.

    Oh, no? Three months of bureaucratic delays, over three hundred dollars in court costs, and $40 per certified copy of the court order. Not that big a deal? I could afford it at the time I did it, but there’s a lot of poor trans people who cannot.

    I also don’t think the world is that full of hate against trans people

    twenty trans women per year are murdered in the US, and many more throughout the world, JUST FOR BEING TRANS. The majority of these trans women are poor women of color. Some of these trans women are murdered by POLICE.

    Police regularly harass, arrest on false pretenses – usually dummied-up “prostitution” charges – and phyiscally and sexually assault trans folk, again overwhelmingly victimizing poor trans women of color. Law enforcement authorities, including the TSA, regularly target us on the belief that we are somehow “deceivers” and therefore a danger to national security. Do you really think that the people who arrest, detain, abuse, and disappear brown people for being brown, really give a shit about another group of people who don’t meet their standards for “good, legitimate people?” You might want to use google to find the article about the TSA issuing a bulletin identifying “cross-dressers” (as they call us) as potential terrorists.

    do your basic googling and reading and listening – with your mouth kept shut – to our life experiences before you come to a blog like this and make your ignorant and hateful comments.


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