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The Trials and Trauma of Flying While Transgender

In many ways, airport security measures are built around surveilling and policing gender.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

On June 25, 2016, Ari Bianca Silvera was denied boarding on an Air Transat flight traveling to Toronto from Glasgow. She is a transgender woman with Italian and Argentinian dual citizenship. Because of her Italian citizenship, she has the right to travel to Canada without a visa, but her Italian passport is marked “M” for male, since it was made prior to her transition. However, her Argentinian passport shows her current gender. Additionally, she carries a notarized sworn affidavit that declares her gender and name change to Ari Bianca.

Though Silvera presented all of the supporting documentation at the Glasgow Airport, the airline representatives stopped her from boarding. Prior to this incident, Silvera had never encountered an issue with her documentation through eight years of travel.

“I have used [my Italian passport] consistently to travel for the last eight years, within Europe, to the United States, and to South America, with no issue,” Silvera wrote in a TwitLonger post.

When Broadly reached out to Air Transat for a statement last month, the company didn’t respond to Silvera’s claims but mentioned she would receive a full refund for her flight. The airline apologized “for any inconvenience,” but not without suggesting Silvera should have “[ensured] compliance with requirements of the destination country.”

Unfortunately, many transgender passengers have difficulty traveling by air. Airlines themselves are not the authority that most often denies boarding to transgender passengers. The harassment is more to occur during interactions with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), before a transgender traveler has the opportunity to board a flight. Al Jazeera reports transgender individuals are often singled out during TSA screenings. Particularly, transgender travelers are often “required to undergo pat-down searches by officers of the opposite gender, reveal or remove items such as chest binders and prosthetic penises and defend challenges to their gender identities and their right to opt out of body scans, among other problems.”

The New York Daily News reports that the TSA required Mia (Tu Mutch) Satya, a transgender activist traveling to the Democratic National Convention as a delegate, to undergo a full-nudity inspection of her genital region. She was also groped in the process. Unfortunately, trans women are particularly vulnerable to inappropriate touching in the current body-scanning process.

At its official website, the TSA acknowledges the concerns of transgender passengers regarding its screening procedures. At the same time, it fails to mention any type of groping and full-body nude inspections.

For the full-body AIT screening process, TSA officers are required to press a designating gender button (blue for male or pink for female) based on how a passenger presents their gender identity. But the machine’s software reads male and female anatomy differently because it reads gender by an individual’s physical genitalia, typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Gender, however, is socially constructed and not dependent on biological sex or genitalia. And this is where harassment often arises.

Transgender individuals typically identify with a different gender than the sex assigned to them at birth. Not only can a TSA officer misgender a passenger, so can the machine. The AIT screening process erases transgender individuals, dehumanizing them by reducing their gender to what’s between their legs, which in many cases varies among trans women and trans men.

Even the sheer possibility of experiencing discrimination can be a harrowing experience. Adriana Calvarezi*, a trans woman living in Long Island, was in line for a flight from Seattle when she was randomly given a pat-down by TSA agents. Although Calvarezi did not present as a trans woman while in the airport, she was frightened that airport security would notice the physical features she developed while taking hormone replacement therapy.

“I feel that the TSA has a problem treating anyone properly, and met with a stigmatized group, such as trans women, they feel even more compelled to exercise their powers of discrimination,” she said. “This, combined with genuine misinformation about trans women among TSA agents, leads to trans women being singled out by the TSA more than many other groups of people.”

While Calvarezi isn’t necessarily deterred from flying again, she still thinks the US has a long way to go toward trans acceptance.

“I feel that misinformation about trans women is a problem in society as a whole. Trans issues are not mentioned in schools, and no time is spent even educating people about the mere existence of trans people,” Calvarezi said. “I definitely believe that awareness and respect for trans passengers will increase over time. Anything else would be a regressing society.”

“[The TSA’s gender button] erases nonbinary people completely,” added Sasha Buchert, a lawyer at the Transgender Law Center. Nonbinary individuals identify as neither male nor female, or as both. Many use gender-neutral pronouns, such as “they” and “their” to refer to themselves. Because their identity falls outside of the gender binary, nonbinary people often experience discrimination in institutional settings where the only two genders are “man” and “woman.”

TSA’s gender button can also negatively impact those that are cisgender. “[The system] relies upon the worst kind of gender stereotypes imaginable,” Buchert explained. “It’s not only a huge issue for transgender people, because I don’t know what that means. Do I have to wear heels?”

While cisgender individuals aren’t vulnerable to discrimination like transgender individuals, this system also deeply perpetuates gender roles and expectations that affect cisgender people. What does it mean to present as a woman? As a man? Neither? What about those who don’t conform to those gender roles?

According to Canadian writer and web developer Jules Sherred, one’s gender can be assigned or questioned based on the contents of one’s luggage. In 2012, Sherred was detained by the US Customs and Border Protection while traveling to the US to visit his partner.

He didn’t understand the reason for his detainment until he was questioned about his luggage. A customs officer asked why a woman would pack so little for a month-long trip to the US. “And you only pack one week’s clothes, no extra shoes, and you have more personal items and electronics than clothes?” the officer asked.

“I didn’t pack according to how they profile gender,” Sherred explained. At the time, Sherred’s identification had a female sex marker, despite his identity as a trans man. “I was not in a position to even let him know that I am transgender,” he adds.

The incident Sherred experienced reflects the larger, flawed system at play. Airport security processes are extremely gendered, whether it’s the TSA, Customs, or even a major airline.

And remember, beyond gender, travelers are also profiled by airport security based on race, socioeconomic class, disabilities and mental health.

The Twitter hashtag #TravelingWhileTrans exposes how traumatic travel can be for the transgender community.

All tweets used with permission.

What can be done to make airport security less harmful for trans and nonbinary passengers? Although the TSA purports to train its employees to properly scan transgender passengers, the complications the trans community faces during air travel prove that these efforts at training are not enough to prevent the process from being discriminatory and traumatic.

“If government employees are literally going to touch millions of Americans, we want them trained, but if your body is enough to set off an alarm, now someone has to touch your body parts,” explained Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality. “There’s nothing you can train to make that experience okay.”

To further assess the body scanning process, the public needs to know how successful these machines are in detecting actual threats. Right now, there is little readily available information about how successful body scanner algorithms are. Yet scanners are the front line of airport security all over the world.

“The TSA has made it its business to know what’s in America’s pants,” Tobin added. “Some form of scanners may be useful along with canines, explosive squads, metal detectors and intelligence, but should it be the first line of screening for every person in just about every airport?”

Tobin hopes Congress, the Department of Homeland Security and the next administration will reassess current airport security measures to make them safer for everyone.

*Name has been changed to protect the individual.

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