I’ve recently had the topic come up a few times of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) with respect to traveling while transgender. I’ve learned that many people aren’t aware of the unique challenges and experiences that trans people face when making our way through TSA screening. If you’re cisgender and think that TSA screening is a pain, just wait!
In our post-911 world, I’ve flown an average of a few times a year, and since coming out as trans, I’ve flown even more frequently. Before coming out, I had gotten pretty good about making the process as smooth as possible – I had my carry-on luggage packed to enable me to quickly pull electronics and small liquids for separate screening, I chose my clothes to minimize extra scrutiny, was always careful to empty my pockets, and took my shoes off, even at times the TSA didn’t require that. I can’t remember a time I was pulled for extra scrutiny.
Since I began living as my true self full-time, I have only had one time I’ve been through TSA screening without being pulled for extra scrutiny; it was at an airport where I went through a metal detector instead of the body scanner. Here’s what I’ve learned:
At the body scanners, there is an agent who stands on the far side of the scanner, where there is a touchscreen. The agent looks at each traveler entering the scanner and taps either a pink or blue button on the screen, where pink represents female, and blue represents male (how original!). The body scanner makes its pass, and the traveler is asked to step through and to the side. According to the TSA, there are computer algorithms which evaluate the image captured and look for areas which don’t conform to what would be expected for the selected sex. For those designated female, the presence of an object in or outside the body would be unexpected. For those designated male, the presence of mounds on the chest would be unexpected, as would garments designed to hold and support such mounds. Of course other objects would also be flagged as unexpected – I’ve had a running belt trigger the algorithm. Any of these unexpected items are flagged as “anomalies”, and trigger additional scrutiny.
Before bottom surgery
I had no chance; if the agent identified me as male, my breasts and bra would be flagged as anomalies. If female, my penis would be flagged. There was no way I would make it through security without being flagged. I had a choice: I could out myself and ask the agent to make a specific selection for my sex, or, I could say nothing and let the chips fall where they may. I chose to out myself, and regardless of my appearance, I would ask the agent to select male. Why would I do this when I’m a trans woman? Because I knew that I would be patted down in the area flagged with the anomaly, and I’d rather have my breasts patted down than my penis. To have your boobs felt up or your penis patted down — what a horrible decision to have to make!
So inevitably, I’d be asked to allow an agent to pat me down. Simple, right? Wrong! Since I’d asked the agent to press “male”, they would bring a male agent to perform the pat-down of my breasts! I don’t know about you, but that made me really uncomfortable! So I would demand to be patted down by a female agent, which typically resulted in a brief protest that I’d asked them to select “male”. Once again, I had to out myself and explain that I’m transgender, and being pre-op, I basically had the choice of what area would be flagged as an anomaly. This usually was enough for them to get a female agent to perform the pat-down — still really uncomfortable, but slightly less so than having a male agent perform it. Each time they’d determine that I didn’t have anything dangerous in my bra, and I’d be allowed to proceed, feeling pretty violated and dysphoric. I dreaded passing through TSA security.
After bottom surgery
Things would be a lot better, don’t you think? After all, assuming the agent on the far side of the scanner selects female, my body scans should come up without anomalies, right? And in fact, they usually do. I’ve been pulled for extra screening only a few times since surgery, typically for something on my outer thigh or the middle of my back. I’m still surprised when this happens, as I still select clothing which should make it obvious I don’t have anything dangerous on my body – usually a fairly form-fitting dress with tights or pantyhose – no place to hide anything there! But those pat-downs are pretty quick and in areas of my body which aren’t as sensitive or private; 10 seconds of patting and I’m usually done with that.
But now that I’ve had surgery, I have additional equipment that I have to keep with me – dilators. And I need to keep a certain amount of lubrication to facilitate the dilation process. These have become the new targets for scrutiny.
I can’t put the dilators in my checked luggage, for fear that the luggage might be delayed or lost; I have to dilate at least once daily, and these aren’t things you can pick up at the local drugstore. In fact, the set I have costs $200, and will take at least a few days to be delivered. I have to keep them with me in my carry-on bags so I can ensure they make it with me wherever I end up. Similarly, I need to keep an amount of lubrication with me; while I can typically get acceptable lube at a drugstore, I can’t always count on there being a drugstore available – if I arrive late at night, they might be closed, or if I’m delayed in the airport, the drugstore likely won’t carry it at all (not to mention I would have a difficult time finding a private place to perform dilation).
As I’ve mentioned before, the dilators are hard solid plastic rods with slightly angled and rounded tips. There’s nothing metal or different inside the dilators – they are just hunks of plastic. But for some reason, the agent running the x-ray machine always flags them for additional screening.
I did my homework before I flew after surgery. I had learned that dilators are frequently pulled for extra screening, so I was able to prepare. I wrapped my dilators up in their travel pouch, added a note inside that pouch, then wrapped a second (identical) note around the pouch and placed that in a large plastic bag. The note simply reads: “These go in my vagina. They must be kept sterile. If you need to remove them from this bag, please put on a new set of gloves.” The very first flight after surgery, sure enough, they were flagged. The conversation went a little like this:
TSA Agent: (she happened to be a woman) I need to perform additional screening. Please accompany me over to this table.
Me: sure, no problem.
Her: (reading the note inside the bag) Do I need to put on new gloves?
Me: yes please. Those are medical devices which go inside my vagina, so they must be kept sterile.
Her: (snapping on a fresh pair of gloves, then examining the travel case) how do you open this?
Me: (pointing) just pull on the loose end of that tie right there.
Her: (unrolling the travel case) May I remove this (indicating the first dilator)? We can go to a private inspection area.
Me: (unashamed) I’m fine with you inspecting them here if that’s alright with you. They are medical devices.
Her: (pulling out the first dilator) (eyes widen)
(Pulling out second dilator, which is slightly bigger) (eyes bulge a little)😯
(Pulling out third dilator, bigger still) (eyes bulge a lot, her face is starting to get red, and she’s glancing at me)
(Pulling out last dilator, which is 9 inches long and 1 1/2 inches in diameter) (eyes about to come out of head, face is red, now she won’t make eye contact with me)
Her: you have a good flight!
Me: (smiling in amusement) thank you, have a great day!
Subsequent passes through screening have resulted in screening for the dilators, but each time they’ve swabbed the outside of the plastic bag and tested it for explosive residue. (Lol why?!)
I had one pass where the dilators didn’t get flagged, but the tube of lubrication did. It’s a 4 oz tube, so it technically exceeds the limit for liquids, but I never use a brand-new, completely full tube – I bring one at least 1/2 used, so that it’s obviously less than 4 ounces, and also so that if they do make me throw it away, I’m not losing a full tube. The time I was pulled for scrutiny on the lube, the TSA agent told me that the limit was 4 ounces, but that she would let me keep it, this time.
I will be getting a letter from my doctor documenting the medical necessity of carrying lube with me for any future issues.
These are just my experiences, and compared with stories I’ve heard from other trans people, my experiences are really tame. Trans men face extra scrutiny for wearing binders (a tight garment which compresses breasts to make their chest flat), and for using packers (prosthetic penis and scrotum worn inside the underwear to give the appearance of a bulge). They can, of course, forgo either of these devices, but that can cause them to suffer dysphoria, as well as making them out themselves to agents, as they may still be read as male.
Non-binary trans people are left with no good options at all – the scanning algorithms have no allowance for their bodies at all.
I’ve also heard and read true horror stories, where trans people are detained by TSA – even to the point of missing their flights – simply because the agents weren’t knowledgeable/trained on working with transgender travelers. Many trans people just stop flying altogether, instead using ground or water-based transportation methods to travel.
To say that the TSA system is flawed is an understatement. Even cisgender travelers are regularly inconvenienced or even traumatized by TSA procedures and/or personnel. But for transgender travelers, we face an added level of complexity and scrutiny which cisgender people do not. And while the TSA has made progress and promises to do better, the reality is that whatever progress we’ve seen so far has been hard-fought for and grudgingly given, and under the current administration, further meaningful change is looking increasingly unlikely.
So the next time you fly, pay attention to the screening procedures, and if you happen to be flying with someone who is transgender, be there for them – to support them, accompany them to additional screening (it is the trans person’s right to have you there as a witness), and if it looks like things aren’t going well for your companion, don’t be afraid to document the process so that the process can be improved. And if you have had any issues with TSA screening, consider submitting feedback at the TSA website — the more feedback and complaints they get, the more motivated they will be to affect change.