A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screener looks at a monitor at New York’s JFK International Airport on May 17, 2017. (Photo: Andrew Gombert, EPA)
WASHINGTON – The Transportation Security Administration has improved its screening for transgender travelers, but a 2015 survey found nearly half that flew during the previous year reported a negative experience, a congressional panel heard Tuesday.
The National Center for Transgender Equality surveyed 28,000 transgender adults and found 53% had flown in the previous year. Of those, 43% reported reporting a negative experience such as being patted down by an officer of the wrong gender or being loudly questioned about their body parts at a checkpoint.
“Some reported leaving the checkpoint in tears, while others fear that being outed to other travelers in the screening process could make them a target for other violence,” Harper Jean Tobin, the center’s policy director, told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation security.
She acknowledged that TSA’s treatment has improved in recent years through training and familiarizing officers with the issues. But TSA needs to move beyond full-body scanners, which use animation to highlight suspicious items on a body, and pat-downs to detect weapons and explosives, she said.
“We urge the agency to think about more than making tweaks,” Tobin said. “As long as TSA relies on body-scanner units and intimate pat-downs as primary passenger screening tools, we believe there will be a cost to travelers’ privacy, dignity and liberty, and questions about whether that cost is paying off in real security benefits.”
Christine Griggs, TSA’s acting assistant administrator for civil rights, told lawmakers that the agency is studying screening equipment that could eliminate gender-specific alarms. But she couldn’t estimate how soon the equipment could be verified and used regularly at airports.
“Certainly we continue to work to bring that forward as quickly as we can,” she said.
More on transgender issues:
More U.S. teens identify as transgender, survey finds
Transgender candidate wins, makes history in California
A program called TSA Cares began in 2011 offering a toll-free hotline for travelers to ask questions about screening policies, such as for disabilities or medical conditions. For example, travelers can request a pat-down in private room.
In April 2017, TSA created a video series to educate travelers about screening, including processes transgender passengers.
“It’s really important for us to advise passengers not only in advance, but also while we’re engaging with them and providing a situation where they are comfortable,” said Stacey Fitzmaurice, TSA deputy assistant administrator for security operations.
Examples of complaints about checkpoint screening included:
♦Shadi Petosky, a transgender woman who tearfully live-tweeted her screening in Orlando in 2015.
♦Carl Charles, a lawyer who published an op-ed in October 2015 about his experience as a student flying to D.C. to apply for an internship. While TSA officers have changed their term from an “anomaly” in the groin area to something “alarming,” Charles described being told: “Sir, we need to know what’s in your pants.”
♦CNN commentator Angela Rye, who is not transgender, whose video of a groin pat-down in Detroit was widely viewed in 2016.
“As you can imagine, the conversation that followed was very uncomfortable – frankly even more uncomfortable than my sitting here before a congressional subcommittee discussing it,” Tobin said.
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