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TSA police concern for transgender travelers
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times
2011-08-17

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Allyson Robinson is a veteran traveler. For her position as associate director of diversity for the Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) , she has flown about twice a month for the last three years.

Last year, she logged 65,000 miles. However, Robinson has said that nothing makes her more nervous than checking into an airport.

Robinson is like many transgender people, who say that pre-flight screening rules and security scans present a unique set of challenges for transgender travelers.

The Transportation Security Administration ( TSA ) came under fire last week when it was widely reported that TSA allegedly dismissed a transgender employee over her gender identity. Ashley Yang sued TSA after being fired from her job at Los Angeles International Airport ( LAX ) in July 2010.

In a settlement from that case, TSA has mandated transgender sensitivity training for its managers at LAX.

However, TSA has been increasingly under fire from transgender groups for years now over passenger concerns.

"There is a violation of privacy that's taking place there that is absolutely unnecessary," said Robinson.

New security measures like full body scans and gender marker requirements in recent years have heightened fears among many transgender customers, who say that such procedures put them at risk for being publicly outed.

Being publicly outed, they say, puts transgender people at risk of humiliation, discrimination and violence.

The National Center for Transgender Equality ( NCTE ) tackles some of those worries in a set of recommendations for transgender travelers on its website. At the top of that list are ID issues.

TSA requires that passengers booking flights provide their gender, which must match the gender on the ID they use at the airport. Further, TSA recommends that travelers present as the gender on their ID.

"TSA respectfully suggests that passengers who have transitioned to another gender update their government issued ID accordingly if possible if they have concerns about misidentification when they travel," said Ann Davis, a TSA spokesperson.

Last year, the federal government changed guidelines to make it easier for transgender people to update the gender markers on their passports. Under old rules, transgender people had to provide proof having undergone certain gender-changing surgeries. Today, a note from a medical provider that a person has changed genders in some way is sufficient to change gender markers on a passport.

Still, not every transgender person wants or is able to update identification.

Robinson still has an "M" for male on her ID and can't update it for personal reasons. She said she has been stopped more than a dozen times at the airport because of it.

On Aug. 8, Robinson was returning home the Gender Odyssey Conference in Seattle. When she tried to check in at the airline desk, an employee pulled up her information on a computer and then called over two co-workers. The employee pointed out Robinson's information on the screen, and the three laughed, Robinson said. Robinson thought the incident could only be about the "M" on her flight information.

"There are all kinds of reasons why people have [ an old ] gender marker on their ID," she said.

Some transgender people opt not to change the gender marker on their ID for medical insurance reasons. Insurance companies can refuse to cover medical expenses on the basis of gender markers. A transgender man with an "M" on his ID, for example, might still need to get mammograms and pap smears, which insurance might refuse to cover.

Robinson questions why gender markers are necessary at all in airports.

Davis said that gender markers "allow TSA to better identify those who pose a threat to aviation while making travel easier for people who are often misidentified due to having a name similar to one on a watch list."

Gender markers may also determine whether travelers are search by female or male transportation security officers when there is confusion. TSA policy mandates that a person must be searched and screened by someone of the same gender. If a person has concerns about being perceived as the wrong gender, Davis said, TSA recommends updating identification documents.

Candice Hart, president of Chicago-based organization Illinois Gender Advocates, said she understands the TSA policies. As someone who travels, she said the security measures make her feel safer, even though her own IDs have not been updated since transition.

"Being outed is a big concern in the [ transgender ] community," Hart said. But she added, "you can argue both sides of it. One point is from a security standpoint."

Davis stated that TSA's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has not recorded significant problems with the ID policy.

Another concern among transgender travelers are the new full body scans, also known as advanced imaging technology ( AIT ) .

TSA started using the scans in 2007, but wide implementation of them over the last year raised eyebrows all over the country because the images show travelers bodies beneath their clothes, creating an almost nude image.

According to Davis, TSA agents review AIT images in a separate room without seeing the person whose scan they are viewing. Davis said that a screener might not even know a person was transgender based on the scan.

Robinson said that fact does not comfort her. Since TSA screeners communicate about the scans over the radio, Robinson argues that TSA officers still have access to information about travelers' bodies. Transgender people might also be asked to explain "anomalies" like breast prosthetics to TSA.

In July, TSA announced new generic AIT images, increasing privacy for travelers. The images look more like cartoon sketches than their actual bodies. Essentially, TSA says, all bodies will now look alike on the scan.

NCTE said questions remain, however. The organization worries the new scan won't prevent transgender people from being outed because the scanning process still differentiates genders and might show body "anomalies" on transgender people.

"We are concerned that AIT does not sufficiently identify security threats which may put transgender people under increased scrutiny leading to invasive pat-downs, potentially embarrassing questions and discrimination," NCTE said in a statement to Windy City Times.

However, TSA is making progress on transgender issues, said Vincent Paolo Villano of NCTE. Despite concerns, NCTE sits on the TSA coalition.


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