Op-ed: Flying While Trans

6.18.2013

By Brad Glemser

Getting through airport security isn't easy, but it can be especially difficult when you're transgender.

Airport security can be nerve-racking and at times a downright nightmare for transgender travelers — as well as for many other people. Though the Transportation Security Administration is currently reviewing its screening methods, lots of transgender people like me have had our privacy taken away from us only to subsequently face harassment and discrimination from airport security staff.

My most horrific experience ironically took place on National Coming Out Day last year. I was flying through Miami, and after I went through a body scanner, the TSA officer wanted to pat down my chest. While doing so he felt my chest binder, which I wore every day and which the scanner had consistently detected under my clothes and flagged as an "anomaly." I told him it was a back brace. Calling it a "binder" — something used specifically by transgender men — had often prompted extra thorough pat-downs by airport security. Calling it a back brace meant that I didn’t have to disclose my transgender identity to TSA officers and to other travelers standing nearby.

This time, though, calling it a back brace failed.

The security officer instructed me to disrobe and remove my binder so they could swab it for explosive traces and put it through the scanner. Knowing this would mean exposing myself in a humiliating and inappropriate way, I refused. After a heated discussion, the transportation security manager from the Department of Homeland Security was brought in to continue pressuring me. While waiting for him to arrive, I was surrounded by TSA officers who guarded my bags and watched over me.

When the manager arrived, he persisted in asking me to remove my binder and even threatened to arrest me if I did not acquiesce. The two men took me to a windowless screening room and closed the door behind them. For a moment I feared what they might do to me.

Thankfully, instead of completely disrobing, they agreed to lett me unbutton my shirt so they could swab underneath the binder to do an explosives test. This in itself was invasive enough. Afterward, I was forced to undergo another full, prison-style pat-down.

Many nontransgender people may not understand how deeply nerve-racking this is. It’s akin to being asked to get naked in public — a wholly invasive and unnecessary process in the name of airport “security.”

Unfortunately, this happens all too often to transgender people. A survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 18% of the 6,500 respondents had experienced harassment or some other form of discrimination at the airport. That was before body scanners and "enhanced" pat-downs were put in place. And of course it's not just trans people whose privacy is invaded — people with disabilities, those who use personal medical devices, religious minorities, and survivors of sexual trauma are all disproportionately harmed by these invasive procedures.

This is why I’ve joined the National Center for Transgender Equality in urging the TSA to consider security screening alternatives that don’t overly rely on heavy pat-downs and body scanners. At the very least, the TSA can do more to reduce the invasion of privacy and ensure all travelers are treated with dignity and respect for their persons. Maintaining airport security does not have to compromise the rights and privacy of anyone — including transgender people.

BRAD GLEMSER is a project manager from Madison, Wis.

Tags: Travel Tips

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