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'Tis the season, as they say. The time of year when ornaments are placed on pine trees – not to mention bell ringers, packed shopping malls, and the same 15 songs you've heard every December since you were a child. In amongst all of these is the potential for holiday travel – and no time in recent history has travel been wrought with so much controversy.
This year, the Transportation Security Administration has added what it characterizes in its own press releases as "an unpredictable mix of security layers," including an increase in "advanced imaging technology" and a new, more intrusive pat-down procedure for those traveling by airplane.
A large number of stories have circulated in the media about these systems – which were unveiled last month – and the "rock and a hard place" option between an X-ray machine that can expose the whole of your body and a pat-down that includes groping one's most private parts. Many are outraged about a system they view as counter to the civil liberties they hold dear.
The TSA, meanwhile, has determined that such procedures are necessary to protect passengers, crew, and others who might be impacted by a terrorist attack aboard a plane. They point to attempts such as that of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, dubbed the "Underwear Bomber" for attempting to detonate explosive material in his underwear while on board a Detroit-bound flight last Christmas.
Regardless of the reasons, having a TSA employee feel under and around one's breasts and genitals – let alone full-body scans – can leave one feeling vulnerable, exposed, and humiliated. For many transgender people, this can mean being outed while traveling.
The TSA is using both millimeter wave and backscatter X-ray systems. Both systems produce an image that displays the whole body of a subject, including visible buttocks, genitals, and breasts. The scans also would reveal any binders, gaffes, or prosthetics present on a subject. A suspicious item could be further "zoomed in on" by a TSA agent using these machines.
The new pat-down procedures include handling around the breasts and genitals of passengers, and there has been a report of a mastectomy patient having to remove and expose their silicone breast prosthesis. It would be safe to assume that any materials used to conceal or enhance genitals and chests could indeed be viewed as suspicious and require additional study by the TSA.
According to the TSA, the machines blur passenger faces, and those viewing the images are not in view of any passengers. Likewise, the systems do not allow for the transmission and storing of images while in use. The new procedures are assumed to include the ability to have such a pat-down outside of public view. All this said, there are reports of people not having the option to be patted down in private, or faces not fully obscured, and of images stored and even transmitted.
So what does this mean for a transgender person?
For many, especially when one might be new at presenting in their preferred gender identity in public, being in a large, crowded, space can make one nervous. We may worry about being outed, or getting harassed solely for how we're presenting. This nervousness may work against us, causing a TSA agent to be more concerned about us. When this happens, it becomes all that more likely that one will indeed be outed. In a worst-case scenario, this could mean public humiliation and degradation. Heck, even in the best case this will be a less-than-pleasant situation.
An important note: The TSA does not have any policies in place for the treatment of transgender individuals. This means that you can face TSA agents who don't have a complete grasp on why a person might be binding their breasts or wearing a "packer" to fill out their pants. They may not understand why someone would wear breast forms or tuck male genitals back. More than this, you stand a chance of coming across a TSA agent who is less-than-friendly toward transgender presentation.
I really do not like the idea of a TSA officer being able to view the body beneath my clothing, or reach between my thighs, buttocks, and genitals. I can indeed understand the "why" of it all – but this is quite simply not something with which I am in any way comfortable.
I don't have any air travel in my near future, which makes this issue that much less pressing for me. Yet many do need to take flights this holiday season, and I cannot help but feel that many transgender people will find their personal safety compromised in the name of making for safe air travel. Their personal privacy will indeed be at risk, and I dare say I expect to hear of TSA agents harassing transgender travelers this season and in the future. I don't want to think that – but yet, I do. It's elementary.
The National Center for Transgender Equality has produced a guide for the transgender traveler, suggesting that one check their binders and other items, or be prepared to educate the TSA officers when they ask. They also note the procedures for complaining about how one might be treated. You can read its release at http://www.transequality.org.
Meanwhile, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center are collecting information from transgender people who have faced issues while in airport security lines. The form for that is at http://www.nclrights.org.
Either way, I hope that in between the fruitcake and other holiday traditions you may enjoy, I hope that safe, friendly skies will be yours – and that you will not face public humiliation at the hands of the TSA.
Gwen Smith might have to take the train next time. You can find her online at www.gwensmith.com.