How transgender travelers can best handle airport security

Digital Content Producer Alex Parker talks with PFLAG Atlanta Board President Ann Vitale about how trans travelers can handle airport security.
Published: Nov. 18, 2022 at 4:38 PM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - The holiday season is one of the busiest travel times of the year, and going through an airport can be stressful for just about anyone. This is especially true for transgender or non-binary travelers. They can face discrimination, abuse and bigotry along multiple points in a process that isn’t designed with them in mind. A combination of human judgment and technological design can lead to a harrowing experience.

Even a cursory search reveals a torrent of testimonies from gender-non-conforming travelers. A ProPublica study from 2019 revealed that transgender and non-binary travelers made up more than 5% of the complaints against the TSA despite making up only 1% of the general population. Twitter hashtags such as #TravellingWhileTrans offer even more stories about the anxiety gender-non-confirming people can feel going through security.

The simple thought of going through security as a trans or non-binary person can prevent them from flying at all. Sometimes, however, they might not have a choice. There are several things a gender-non-conforming traveler can do to make their experience just a little bit smoother, and there are things the rest of society can do to better understand what gender-non-confirming travelers go through as they step into the scanner.

Ann Vitale of PFLAG Atlanta said, “when you look at how some of the technology works, it can really create barriers.” According to Vitale, the entire process is based on gender identity. “The TSA agent actually presses a pink or blue button, and then the image is gonna flag if something seems off. For someone who is transgender, there’s a good chance that the wrong button could get pushed.”

If the system flags a transgender or non-binary traveler, it can lead to a patdown that can either be conducted in the screening area or a private area with a witness present. Travelers can also ask to have the patdown performed by a TSA agent who matches their gender identity.

The patdown can feel invasive and aggressive. One traveler recounted her experience on Tiktok and called TSA “transphobic;” the video received more than 16 million views. This process can lead to more than complaints. A North Carolina woman sued the TSA in 2021 after she alleged her transgender daughter was strip searched following a false positive.

Passengers walk through the security queue at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Passengers walk through the security queue at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Transgender or non-binary travelers could dress in a way that matches what they think the TSA agent will think, but that only works to a point. If they’ve started medically transitioning, the scanner could clock them regardless. The dysphoria and mental stress it could cause might not be worth the trouble either.

Tori Cooper, Director of Community Engagement for the Human Rights Campaign’s Transgender Justice Initiative, says gender-non-conforming people should do everything they can to skip the lines.

One option is TSA PreCheck. After being screened and fingerprinted, you’re given a Known Traveler Number which allows you to go into a separate line with a metal detector rather than a scanner. You don’t have to remove your shoes, small liquids or electronics.

You can also select a gender other than the one on your ID card when applying. The program costs $85 for a five-year period, although it’s currently marked down to $78 for the holidays. Most people get their number three to five days are being fingerprinted. It might be a little too late to get it for Thanksgiving, but you might be able to squeeze it in for Christmas!

PreCheck doesn’t exempt travelers from scanners entirely, but it makes it less likely and results in a shorter line.

There’s also CLEAR, a private company that focuses on identity verification. If you’re at an airport with a CLEAR station, you can step up to a kiosk and verify your identity using your eyes or fingerprints.

CLEAR is $189 a year, far more expensive than PreCheck, and it’s available at fewer airports. It is available at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

In addition to either service, you can get a free digital ID when flying through certain airlines. If you’re flying Delta or American Airlines, you can store your information in their respective apps and use those to verify your identity.

However, all of those services cost money that some travelers might not have to spare. One way Cooper says allies can support gender-non-conforming is by paying for these services. “Anything that can affirm our identity by making it a safer experience is worth investing in,” she said.

If you’re a transgender traveler with a disability, you can print out a notification card that will let an agent know of anything that might hinder the screening process. You can also ask for an escort through the TSA Cares program. You can call (855) 787-2227 at least 72 hours before your flight and request that a TSA agent meets you at the airport and gives you assistance throughout the entire airport, not just the screening process.

That might seem counterintuitive, but Vitale says the agents in the program “get it. They want to be helping people.”

A person skates in the Atlanta Pride Parade, using a transgender flag as a cape.
A person skates in the Atlanta Pride Parade, using a transgender flag as a cape. (JOYCE E. LUPIANI/ATLANTA NEWS FIRST)

When asked for comment, the TSA sent Atlanta News First its webpage detailing how the agency handles transgender and non-binary travelers.

The TSA announced in March that it would implement new, gender-neutral scanners at some point in the future. Until then, the agency promises “less invasive” security procedures.

U.S. citizens can also select “X” as a gender marker on their passport, TSA PreCheck and CBP Trusted Traveler Programs, although only a limited number of airlines have a similar option for boarding passes.

For many gender-non-conforming travelers this holiday season, none of it is coming fast enough. It all has its limits, too.

Ivy Hill, Community Health Program Director for the Campaign for Southern Equality, is genderqueer. They noted that changing your gender marker can be an option for many people. However, it’s not nearly as useful for people like them.

They also noted that traveling through airport security is a “systemic issue...with no good, clear answer,” because you ultimately don’t know how a given TSA agent is going to react.

But gender-non-confirming people can find ways to exist without fear. There’s an entire community of trans people who go through this, for better or for worse.

“Where I draw my strength from in situations like that, in having to exist in a world that isn’t built for us, really comes from other community members,” Hill said. “You’re absolutely not alone.”