I recently experienced what seems to be a right of passage for trans people who have to go through airport security: the private screening. I was on my way to catch a flight home after traveling for Thanksgiving, and wrote the following description of my experience immediately after it happened:
First ‘private screening’ with TSA, going through security at RDU:
After the body scanner, the agent who gave me the initial torso pat down (that I always have some part of no matter what) felt some wrinkles from my binder under my clothes, and asked if I was wearing a necklace or medallion. I said that I wasn’t, and made a quick calculation to explain that I was wearing a brace for medical purposes that I couldn’t remove. He explained that they needed to do a private screening. He called over another agent, collected my things, and then we all went to a tiny room with frosted translucent glass walls, a table and chair. They closed the door and the two agents stood facing me in this little room. I decided that now was a prudent time to disclose that I am trans.
The agents were friendly, and didn’t bat an eye when I disclosed that I am trans and that that’s why I was binding my chest. They never suggested that I remove my binder, and they never questioned my gender, but they did say that if they couldn’t ‘clear’ it through my shirt, then they were going to have to see it. I stressed to them that that’s like asking someone on strip down to their underwear. They explained that since I was a male, my torso isn’t classified as a ‘sensitive area’, meaning that according to policy, it didn’t matter how private that area is for me.
I suggested that they change their policy for trans passengers. They were friendly and polite, and suggested I fill out a comment card after the fact (and did, in fact, provide me with one later).
I removed my sweater and outer shirt, leaving just my undershirt covering my binding (and thank everything I happened to be wearing a darker, more opaque undershirt today – will be doing that on purpose for future travel).
The agent who was going to do the pat down asked some questions to thoroughly ensure that a pat down was not going to cause me physical pain or discomfort. He then gave my torso a very thorough pat down, feeling every wrinkle and seam. I gave more descriptions of what he could expect to find, just to be as non-threatening and transparent as I could, with the hopes that this would ease things and speed up the process. The other agent made small talk with me to keep things light, which I did appreciate.
I am extremely lucky, at least in some respects, that having a total stranger with lots of power over me throughly feel up my torso isn’t triggering or traumatic for me. Uncomfortable and invasive, yes, but not scarring. Others are probably not so fortunate.
After I was cleared and could put my shirt and sweater back on, I explained to them that I had heard of folks who have had bad experiences, and that the unpredictability itself is stressful. They listened and waited as I collected my things and put my shoes back on. Again, they were always friendly and polite. It could have been a lot worse – and at any time in the future, it still could be.
I would like to know more about this policy of having to ‘see’ my binder, and whether that’s actually true. If I had had to go that far, it would have crossed a big, unacceptable line for me. It still feels unacceptable that that was even considered an option.
I am still calming down from the adrenaline, and may have more feelings later. I am glad I will be home soon.
About half an hour later, I added the following:
I am feeling angry, invaded, raw, and vulnerable. My feelings are as much to do with a reaction to loss of agency and knowledge of my inability to prevent this from happening again, as other things. I want to be in a quiet small place and not interact with anyone.
I am listening to comforting music, charging my phone, and considering getting a hot chocolate or something.
I am more seriously considering doing pre-check. But also I shouldn’t have to.
After I got home, I searched the internet for specific policies about having to reveal binders to TSA agents, because this just seemed outrageous to me. The National Center for Trans Equality (NCTE) says the following about the subject:
Travelers should never be required to lift, remove, or raise an article of clothing to reveal a prosthetic item and should not be asked to remove it. This applies to binding items, breast forms, and other prosthetics. If a TSA officer asks you to reveal a prosthetic item, ask to speak to a supervisor and calmly explain the situation.
When I tried to find a TSA website with this level of detail, I couldn’t find any, so I emailed NCTE about my experience, and asked the following questions:
1 – Is there a policy and/or strategy that I can cite/use to prevent having to strip down to my binding in the future?
2 – What is the most effective way to file a complaint about my experience in terms of wording, existing policies/information to cite, and/or legal framework?
I got a response from Harper Jean Tobin, whose name I recognized immediately. Among other things, she said:
I’m sorry to hear about this awful experience you had. TSA has communicated to us many times the “life [sic] or remove” policy and I am not sure why it’s not currently stated on TSA.gov, as it has been previously. I will try to ask that next time we talk to TSA staff here in DC.
She also said that complaints don’t need any legal basis, as they are there to put pressure on the institution to change.
I have since taken another look for information on TSA’s policies for trans passengers, and found the following:
Prosthetics: If you have prostheses, you can be screened using AIT, walk-through metal detectors or a pat-down. You will not be asked to lift, remove or raise any article of clothing to reveal the prosthesis in a sensitive area of the body. You will not be asked to remove your prosthesis.
Not only does this not mention chest binding specifically, but it runs right into the same problem I encountered during my private screening: the issue of what is considered a ‘sensitive area’.
I replied to Harper Jean Tobin with this information, and plan to file a complaint specifically detailing this hole in their policy as well.
I have flown 5-10 times since I changed my ID to reflect my gender and name accurately and have been perceived accordingly, and this is the first time I have had to deal with private screening. I can always expect to have my chest area subjected to a minor pat down after the body scanner, but from there it is entirely up to the discretion of the patting agent whether to do a more thorough screening, and this is where some of the uncertainty lies.
I am trying to have a plan for what I will do the next time this happens – and it could happen any time I go through security. I have to fly again in about three weeks. This is what I am currently envisioning:
1 – If questioned after my initial, inevitable torso patdown, I will say something like: I am wearing chest compressing undergarments that I cannot remove [for medical purposes].
2 – If brought to ‘private screening’ and asked to reveal my binder, I will explain that I am transgender, and maybe say something like this: The National Center for Transgender Equality has worked with TSA on policy for screening transgender passengers, and their understanding of TSA policy is that I should not be required to reveal my chest binder. I am male, yes, but as a transgender male who has not had top surgery, my chest is indeed a sensitive area, and I am not willing to humiliate myself by revealing it in order to avoid discrimination. Please let me know of other ways I can assist you in clearing my torso for travel.
Maybe if I point out that not letting me travel without humiliating myself by revealing a private body area even potentially constitutes discrimination, they will back off? Ideally, I would rather never challenge a security agent, and I also worry that mentioning discrimination will only escalate a situation, no matter how calmly I put it. I am also considering putting my phone in an outer pocket of my bag set to record audio before going through the scanner, just in case.
I should be able to fly without having to reveal intimate underwear to TSA agents, and if that is not the case, something is seriously wrong.
Part of the trouble here, too, is that the best way to put pressure on TSA would be to post this more publicly, somewhere like Twitter, the way that Shadi Petosky did just a couple months ago when she faced even more horrific treatment than I did from both TSA and American Airlines. But I also do not want to be that ‘out’ at this point, because that brings other risks with it. This is a catch 22 that many trans travelers find themselves in.
I have been processing my other emotional responses to this experience, but will save that for a second post. Stay tuned.