Despite Some Progress in Airport Security, Bigger Changes Needed
In September 2014, National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) was one of three stakeholder organizations to receive a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) “Community Partner” award. NCTE Director of Policy Harper Jean Tobin accepted the award on behalf of NCTE for our education and training of TSA personnel on transgender rights and concerns, and to press for less invasive approaches to airport security. While TSA will not share details of their “standard operating procedures,” it is clear that NCTE’s advocacy has resulted in some refinements over the years. These changes, along with the move away from officers viewing individual body scans to an automated system where officers view only a generic “Gumby” outline , mean we hear fewer stories of bad TSA experiences each month than in the past. As TSA has rolled out its Passenger Support Specialist (PSS) program, NCTE has directly worked with TSA to present transgender online trainings to several hundred PSS officers.
Unfortunately, less than one week after receiving the award from Administrator Pistole, NCTE heard from our longtime supporter and trans advocate Gunner Scott about a bad TSA experience at JFK airport. Contrary to the procedures TSA established with NCTE’s input, Scott was asked to take off his shirt by TSA personnel after a body scanner read his binder (in this case, an item identical to a sports bra) as an “anomaly.” Like many trans men, Scott runs into binder “anomalies” frequently and this was the second time in two years he’d been asked to remove his shirt.
As long as TSA relies on body scanners and prison-style pat-downs as its primary tools, there will be a cost to travelers’ privacy. While there will be some cost to all travelers, anyone who is perceived as different or whose body is not typical will bear the brunt of it. Most TSA officers are trying to do their job respectfully and do not relish having to frisk travelers every day. And NCTE believe TSA’s senior staff and civil rights office have worked in good faith to improve staff training and to make modest changes to policy. But while we’re committed to working with TSA on these efforts, the current model of passenger screening ensures that some problems will persist. While the system is less intrusive than it was a few years ago, it still needs to change. Three years ago TSA was ordered by a federal appeals court to review its passenger screening methods and adopt clear rules to govern the process. NCTE joined thousands of individuals and hundreds of privacy and LGBT advocates last year in filing comments urging the agency to shift away from the current model to one that is more tailored, effective, and privacy-protective. You can read our comments below. NCTE is awaiting TSA to issue new rules. NCTE urges the agency to change course, and at the very least, codify some of the minimal privacy protections it already promises, and add some new ones. In the meantime, NCTE will keep working with TSA to improve. For information about what to expect in the TSA screening process and how to assert your rights, please review our resource, “Know Your Rights: Airport Security and Transgender People.” You may also consult that resource if you face mistreatment or harassment in an airport screening. Consider filing a complaint directly with TSA, which is one of the best ways for TSA to understand how their procedures affect travelers.