House Committee Examines How TSA Screenings Affect Transgender People


Transgender Universe

By Mila Madison

On Tuesday, the Homeland Security Committee heard testimony regarding the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and how it interacts with the traveling public through interactions at checkpoints, customer service contact centers, and social media.

Transgender issues took center stage as Harper Jean Tobin, the Director of Policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, gave her testimony. Tobin took aim at the TSA’s Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanning machines and how they compromise the dignity of transgender travelers.

“Transgender travelers experience serious difficulties with the current approach to passenger screening,” Tobin said in her testimony. “As TSA works to pursue innovation in passenger screening—including in screening technology—we strongly urge the agency to prioritize the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of passengers, including by making imaging technology gender-neutral and eliminating alarms caused solely by sensitive parts of the body—namely, the chest or genitals—or by undergarments, rather than any foreign object.”

“TSA’s current Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) seriously compromises the privacy and dignity of transgender travelers,” Tobin also testified. “In particular, transgender men routinely encounter alarms caused by their chest compression vests or by their chests themselves, while transgender women frequently encounter alarms caused solely by their private parts. These alarms and resulting additional screening—no matter how professionally conducted—are unnecessary, humiliating, and deeply concerning, especially for travelers who experience them again and again.”

Tobin cited the NCTE’s 2015 Transgender Survey, which found that 43% of transgender people who travelled in the year prior reported at least one negative experience with passenger screening related to being transgender.

“These negative experiences included being referred to as the wrong gender or verbally harassed by Transportation Security Officers; receiving additional screening including pat-downs because of gender-related clothing; being subjected to a pat-down by an officer of the wrong gender; being loudly questioned about their gender or their body parts at the checkpoint; and being asked to remove or lift clothing to show an undergarment or sensitive area of the body. Some respondents reported being detained for over an hour or missing their flight due to gender-related screening issues,” Tobin said. “Some reported having to go through scanners multiple times; receiving multiple pat-downs; having TSO’s refuse to pat them down because they were transgender; being questioned about their gender in front of their children; and leaving the checkpoint in tears. Some said they were simply too afraid to fly, or wracked with nerves every time. Some demanded to speak to supervisors or filed complaints and felt TSA was very responsive to complaints about insensitive or harassing treatment, while others were told nothing could be done because their bad experience was inherent in the current screening procedures.”

Prior to Tobin’s testimony was that of Christine Griggs, Acting Assistant Administrator for the TSA’s Civil Rights and Liberties (CRL), Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement (OTE) divisions, and Stacey Fitzmaurice, the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the TSA’s Office of Security Operations. In their testimonies, they cited progress made by the TSA through educating the public about current procedures, training personnel to better follow procedures, and addressing individual complaints about the conduct of TSO’s.

Tobin complimented their efforts, but pointed out how they were simply not enough to resolve the ongoing issues. “We believe most TSO’s aren’t interested in harassing travelers or invading their privacy, and many are uncomfortable with the invasive nature of some of their work,” Tobin said. “The staff of CRL/OTE have worked in earnest to engage the public and respond to complaints, but the agency as a whole has never adequately addressed the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties problems inherent in the current screening model and current scanner technology.”

Though she did praise some of the positive steps taken such as the TSA Cares hotline, the use of Passenger Support Specialists, and the TSA Pre-Check programs, Tobin pointed out how these steps have not addressed the basic concerns transgender travelers have. “They want to get on a plane without discussing their private parts or having them touched by government officials, period,” Tobin stated.

In closing, Tobin asked the committee to look beyond the use of AIT scanners as part of the solution. “We understand that TSA is in the process of testing and demonstrating upgrades to the current AIT units. When it comes to innovation, we urge the agency to think big: is upgrading or replacing body scanner units as the primary passenger screening tools really the right move for security and for passengers?” Tobin said while leaving the committee with some questions to consider. “Can less invasive tools like canines and ETD take on a bigger role, with less reliance on scanners and pat-downs? How can the agency minimize false alarms and minimize its ‘touch rate’? And how can reaching out and hearing travelers’ questions, concerns, and experiences inform TSA’s approach on the front end, not just the back end?

Watch Harper Jean Tobin testify at the Homeland Security Committee hearing on the TSA below: