ATLANTA – Cadence Baer will not be among the 27 million Americans flying this Thanksgiving to see family because she cannot deal with the humiliation of having her body scrutinized and laughed at in airport security.
Baer, a trans woman, gave up flying after a Transportation Security Administration officer identified her as a woman for the body scanner, which then triggered an alarm because her groin did not match the machine’s version of the female body.
“I was stopped in front of the entire line of people and two TSA agents touched my crotch repeatedly,” Baer, who began transitioning in 2017, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The [security officer] finally started laughing to himself and pressed the blue button so that the machine would stop registering my penis as a potential threat. The TSA agents were still laughing as I walked away.”
Discrimination concerns are mounting with the growing use of technology by police, security and immigration services that fails to recognize trans and nonbinary people, who do not define themselves as male or female.
Flying while transgender
Trans travelers are often scrutinized at airports as their bodies and luggage – including prosthetics and chest binders – get flagged by body scanners for extra screening, said the National Center for Transgender Equality in a 2015 survey.
It found four in 10 trans travelers had a problem with airport security in the last year due to their gender identity, including being patted down, asked to show an undergarment, having the gender on their ID questioned and being detained.
“It made me feel scrutinized and a little violated,” said Parker Kehrig, a trans man, who had several scans and was patted down multiple times in Detroit and New York airports this year.
Such problems have led to calls for a new law – the 2018 Screening With Dignity Act, which would require the TSA to develop new procedures for screening trans passengers, including assessing the cost of developing gender neutral equipment.
The TSA said a tiny fraction of the complaints it received in the last financial year were from trans passengers – 28 out of more than 100,000 incidents – and that it trains its officers in collaboration with trans rights groups.
“TSA is committed to ensuring all travelers are treated with dignity, respect and courtesy,” it said in emailed comments, adding that its procedures were based on the technology available to detect aviation threats.
Trans travelers can also provide documentation from a doctor to alert the security officers of their gender identity before being screened and request a supervisor to monitor the process, the TSA said.
Trans rights groups were quick to flag the problem of using scanners that fail to recognize non-traditional bodies, leading officers to pat-down the area where the anomaly was detected, when the technology was introduced a decade ago.
“We saw immediately there were problems in the invasive nature of [the scanners] and the scrutiny of trans people’s bodies,” said Harper Jean Tobin, policy director at the National Center for Transgender Equality.
In September 2015, a trans woman named Shadi Petosky recounted being held for 40 minutes while passing through airport security in Orlando, Florida, causing her to miss her flight. Petosky said TSA officers seemed confused about what to do after a scanner flagged her genitals as suspicious.
One officer insisted that she be rescreened, telling her to “get back in the machine as a man or it was going to be a problem,” she said, but another officer said she could not be rescanned. During the detention, she was patted down twice and her luggage was searched, she said.
A TSA spokesman told The New York Times at the time that the officers handled the situation according to policy.
Despite advocacy by trans activists, there has been little progress to resolve the issue.
Tobin said the TSA’s data on the number of trans complaints was misleading as many trans travelers do not feel comfortable reporting issues going through airport security, and many of those who have complained were not satisfied with the response.
Maggie Down, a trans woman, filed a complaint after being subjected to a “thoroughly violating” body search in a private room at the Columbus, Ohio airport.
Down said she was “wordlessly ordered to lift [her] skirt,” after which a security officer had to pat her down twice because she forgot to scan her gloves the first time round.
“I received a rather boilerplate response from the TSA,” Down said. “[It] stated that what happened was standard procedure and recommended I read through the TSA’s FAQ about travel for trans passengers.”
The TSA asked her for further information, which she provided, and she has been waiting one month for a reply.
The TSA was not immediately able to respond to a request for comment on Down’s complaint.
Fear of facial recognition
Trans rights groups fear that the situation could worsen as the TSA is rolling out facial recognition software at airports across the United States.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder tested facial recognition systems from tech giants IBM, Amazon and Microsoft on photographs of trans men and found they were misidentified as women 38 percent of the time.
The study suggested that the software relies on outdated gender stereotypes in its facial analysis, adding that the report’s lead author Morgan Klaus Scheuerman, who is male with long hair, was categorized as female half of the time.
“Maybe you have socially transitioned, but it doesn’t necessarily match what your documentation says – there could be issues with TSA, immigration and customs,” he said.
(Reporting by Sydney Bauer; editing by Hugo Greenhalgh and Katy Migiro of the Thomson Reuters Foundation; Pluralist contributed to this report.)