Skip to main content

Traveling While Trans: An Airport Security Update

As of May 16, 2013, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has equipped all airport scanners with Automated Target Recognition (ATR) software. This software still scans the contours of your body under your clothes, but it doesn’t display images of your body. Instead, it automatically detects objects under your clothes and displays them as yellow blocks on a generic figure. From a privacy perspective, this is definitely an improvement, but ATR can still flag items such as binders or prosthetics as “anomalies,” and this can still lead to invasive questions and pat-downs.

TSA also continues to expand its TSA Pre-Check program—a voluntary, fee-based, pre-screening initiative that passengers can apply to participate in prior to their arrival at airport checkpoints. Participants will be able to use designated Pre-Check lanes and could be permitted to choose not to remove their shoes, toiletries, laptops, light outwear and belts as they move through security. While enrollment in the program does not guarantee that an individual will be exempt from more invasive screening measures, it may decrease the likelihood of experiencing a pat-down. TSA launched Pre-Check last year for participants in certain airlines’ elite frequent-flyer programs, and for those already enrolled in trust traveler programs through U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), such as Global Entry. Starting sometime this fall, travelers will also be able to apply to enroll directly in TSA Pre-Check by paying a fee (expected to be $85), submitting a detailed application, and providing fingerprints at a designated enrollment site. Again, this will not cure privacy issues with airport screening, but for trans folks who travels frequently this is an option worth considering.

In addition to the existing “TSA Cares” hotline for advance questions about screening, TSA now has “Passenger Support Specialists” available at airports across the country to help facilitate the screening process for anyone who needs special assistants. This service is designed for individuals with disabilities, medical conditions, medical devices, religious clothing or head coverings, or other items or issues that can cause concerns or delays during screening. Of course, many folks would like to move through the screening process without having to come out or discuss being trans with anyone from TSA. However, for folks who have had problems before, or have a medical or personal item or situation, requesting assistance from a “PSS” (either at the airport or by calling in advance) is an option to consider. If you have had a good or bad experience with these “PSS” staff, please let us know.

NCTE continues to believe that airport screening is too intrusive, for transgender people and for everyone. In September, NCTE Policy Director Harper Jean Tobin spoke to a TSA stakeholders’ conference here in DC about these ongoing challenges. NCTE will continue advocating with TSA to make screening less intrusive, improve staff training, report complaints, and educate travelers. If you have encountered mistreatment or had a bad experience with airport screening, we strongly encourage you to file a complaint directly with either TSA’s Office of Civil Rights and Liberties or the Department of Homeland Security, Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. For more information visit NCTE’s updated resource, “Know Your Rights: Airport Security and Transgender People.”

Join Our Mailing List

Sign Up