Congress Wants TSA to Change the Way It Handles Transgender Travelers

Thirty-two members sent the agency a letter outlining their requests.

(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Oct 9, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

When Shadi Petosky was detained at an Orlando airport last month, her emotional series of tweets garnered national attention around the issues some transgender people face during even the most routine security checkpoints.

Petosky, a television writer and executive producer based in Los Angeles, was traveling home from Orlando International Airport on Sept. 21 when she tweeted a plea for help: “I am being held by the TSA in Orlando because of an ‘anomaly’ (my penis).” After what she described as 40 minutes of questioning and two full-body pat-downs when agents refused to recognize her gender identity, Petosky missed her flight and had to rebook it.

Petosky’s teary-eyed selfie inspired the Twitter hashtag #travelingwhiletrans, prompted a response from the Transportation Security Administration, and this week spurred Congress into action.

On Thursday, 32 Democrats sent a letter to TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger urging him to review and update any aspects of the agency’s security procedures that could lead to harassment or unequal treatment of transgender travelers.

“It is a sad reality that members of the transgender community face adversity every day,” the letter reads. “While we understand the importance of vigilant airport security, we cannot countenance a security protocol that subjects transgender travelers to this level of indignity.”

The members of Congress, led by Reps. Adam Schiff of California, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and Brian Higgins of New York, outlined three primary recommendations for reform.

First, they wrote, the use of full-body scanners that require agents to select “male” or “female” for individual travelers risks singling out transgender or gender nonconforming people. Instead, the members of Congress suggested implementing a screening procedure that does not rely solely on the judgment of individual agents regarding a person’s gender.

Next, Schiff and his colleagues urged the TSA to create, publish, and publicize clear and comprehensive guidelines informing travelers of their rights during screening procedures. For example, they advised, transgender people need to know they can request a private screening instead of a full-body scanner, and the TSA should provide assurance that transgender people won’t be asked to reveal binding materials or prosthetic devices in a public area.

Finally, all 32 Democrats emphasized that TSA employees should be adequately trained to serve the transgender community. Cultural awareness training, they wrote, is not enough. They recommended that trainings be held in person and that they address the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of transgender travelers.

In a statement to The New York Times the day after Petosky missed her flight, TSA spokesperson Mike England said officers were following agency policy. “After examining closed-circuit TV video and other available information, TSA has determined that the evidence shows our officers followed TSA’s strict guidelines,” he wrote. “Supervisory personnel and a passenger support specialist participated in the screening to ensure guidelines were met.”

On Twitter, the agency said it “continues to work in partnership with representatives of the transgender community to discuss any concerns about the screening process.”