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TSA Body Scanners Can't Properly Screen Trans People


According to a new report, the machines continue to fail trans and nonbinary passengers.

Complaints continue to pile up about the Transportation Security Administration's handling of transgender travelers.

An investigation by the organization ProPublica and the Miami Herald shows trans passengers are disproportionately likely to report problems when traveling through security checkpoints. From January 2016 to April 2019, five percent of complaints related to the screening of trans people, who are estimated to make up just one percent of the population.

Even that estimate of incidents experienced by trans travelers could be low. ProPublica pointed out that many people who have negative experiences do not report them.

The difficulties are widespread and systemic and relate to policies at security checkpoints, screening technology, training, and a culture of confusion. In various reports, ProPublica documented passengers who were forced to strip, to out themselves, or were simply turned away from flights because TSA workers weren't able to process their gender.

As a relatively young agency, the TSA has still had nearly two decades to work out suitable airport screening procedures. The department was formed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and it rolled out full body scanners nationwide around 2010, at a cost of around $110 million.

But there's a problem with those scanners: They require an operator to judge whether the passenger is male or female. Passengers flagged as "male" will trigger an alert if the machine detects breasts, and passengers flagged as "female" will trigger an alert it detects a penis.

There's no option for "neither gender," and the machines do not anticipate the fact that some men have breasts and some women have a penis.

Trans advocates have sounded an alarm about the inadequate machines for years. In 2010, the Transgender Law Center (TLC) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) documented cases of harassment based on perceived gender and urged TSA leadership to address the problem. In response, an official claimed the agency was "working hard to respond to the concerns of the traveling public."

Evidently, that hard work still hasn't yielded results, nearly a decade later.

The TSA implemented new training for screeners this year that includes guidelines for interacting with trans passengers. But with two million individual screenings per day, problems continue to occur all too frequently. What's more, the agency has a turnover rate of 17 percent, so maintaining proper training among the workforce continues to be a challenge.

In a private Facebook group, TSA workers openly discussed how insufficient the training was. Employees expressed resistance to providing and respecting pronouns and noted that the training failed to address a core problem: that the machines only provide a binary gender option.

A representative for the company that makes the scanners told ProPublica that they were working on gender-neutral technology but did not say when it would be ready for use.

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

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Matt Baume