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Transgender on a Plane: TSA's Problematic New 'Universal Pat-Down'


An even stricter security policy has been rolled out under the Trump administration. 

Before I changed the gender marker and name on my license, I would bring my guitar through security and to my gate instead of checking it beforehand. When the flight attendant would see my oversized carry-on, instead of accosting me to check it, she would store it in her personal closet. I had come to expect this courtesy and politeness. And air travel never used to be a problem.

But in October of 2015, the comfort I once enjoyed immediately disappeared after my driver's liscense began reflecting who I truly was. And what replaced that comfort was a new knowledge that lost amid national protests and the debate over the use of public bathrooms, thousands of transgender Americans are being inappropriately touched - put on display by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) everyday.

This past February, I flew from Chicago (where I am a graduate student at Northwestern University) to Houston for a week-long class trip. On the return flight back home from the trip, I stood in line with my fellow students waiting to go through the full-body scanner. What happened from here was consistent with my past experiences-- I step into the scanner, I spread my legs and arms, I watch the white bar shift from right to left, and I walk out.

But before that happened, I tried something different. I had never made a verbal request for TSA agents to push the button on their display indicating my gender. But this time I went for it, hoping to prevent the pat-down of my body. "Excuse me, before I go through the scanner can you push the "male" icon?" I asked. No one replied.

With hesitation, I did as I was directed and walked through the scanner. From there the results were the same as always--a body outline on their monitor, unaltered except for a bright yellow box around the crotch: "That can't be right," the agent said. She told me to pull up my pants tighter and sent me through the scanner again. Same result.

"I'm transgender," I said, frustrated. "I tried to tell you."

She asked me once again to pull up my pants. The agent ran her hands down the back of my thighs first, gradually moving upward. When she was done, she moved her hands over my buttocks. She finished and directed me to turn around. When she rubbed the back of her hands over unexpected genitalia, she finally understood what I was trying to tell her. "Oh, I see!" she boomed, surprised by what she found. Afterwards, my hands were wiped down with paper swabs and I was free to go. I grabbed my bag and walked down the terminal with my classmates.

We were silent. I was embarrassed. And my eyes stayed fixed to the floor in front of me.

The Transportation Security Administration has recently updated its policies regarding transgender passengers. Before these updates, agents patted down passengers like me in the open, next to the sensor. These changes give passengers a choice before it starts: would you like to be touched in a private room or right here? They also mandate that all pat-downs be performed by someone of the same identifying gender. While addressing who touches passengers and where they do it doesn't change that it happens at all, these revisions marked a formal concession.

However, now it appears under a Trump administration that just as things were getting better, they might be getting worse.

Congruent with a travel ban that has made flying difficult for some students, visa holders, and even citizens, the TSA has rolled out an even stricter "universal pat-down." This is done, according to the agency, to lessen the "cognitive burden for our officers" and to reduce "the possibility for confusion with passengers and employees."

Whereas before, TSA agents had the option of using five different types of pat-downs when screening, this move replaces them with a universal approach in airports across the country. Many outlets have reported this new pat-down will be more rigorous and thorough.

In an interview withBloomberg, TSA spokesman Bruce Anderson said "people who in the past would have gotten a pat-down that wasn't involved will notice that the [new] pat-down is more involved." And as a transgender woman already singled out and violated, lost in the shuffle of a massive overhaul, I try to imagine what this means for our community because "more involved" was already too much before.

Many transgender men and women across the country already fear flying due to these restrictions. My experience is tame compared to horror stories--some transgender men whose upper bodies are bound to conceal their chests may be forced to remove their binding in public only to be fully exposed and touched by male TSA agents.

No matter what gender is listed on your travel documents, many folks like me may still have issues going through the invasive full-body scanner. This "universal pat-down" won't make TSA agents any less confused about passengers' gender identity, only more aggressive with them. And the real truth within all of this is that present security measures, or especially these overhauls, are clearly not motivated by the general public's safety.

Policing of transgender bodies is done only to discourage our existence in any and all public spaces. Four years of a conservative administration, or even a liberal one, won't change the systemic nature of this problem. Not until our very presence is normalized--normalized to the TSA agent at security, the onlooking passengers, the airline employees at the desk and to our legislators--will transgender Americans be able to do something so simple many take for granted: fly in peace.

We are owed at least that.

A version of this Op-Ed was first featured in USA Today, which you can read here.

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