Transgender and gender nonconforming people say they have been pressured to expose their genitals during TSA searches at airports. The encounters stem from shortcomings in the agency’s technology and insufficient training of its staff.
On Sept. 15, 2017, Olivia stepped into a full-body scanner at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
When she stepped out, a female Transportation Security Administration officer approached. On the scanner’s screen was an outline of a human body with the groin highlighted. The officer told Olivia that because of something the scanner had detected, a pat-down would be necessary.
As a transgender woman, Olivia, 36, had faced additional TSA scrutiny before. On those occasions, a manual search at the checkpoint had been enough to assure TSA officers that there wasn’t a weapon or explosive hidden in her undergarments.
This encounter with the TSA went very differently.
After patting down Olivia and testing her hands for explosive residue, the officer said that she still couldn’t clear Olivia to board her flight and that a further search would be required.
Olivia was led to a private room where, she said, the officer patted her down again, running her hands down Olivia’s legs and over her groin.
“I told her: ‘If the issue is what you are feeling, let me tell you what this is. It is my penis,’” said Olivia, who agreed to be interviewed only if she were identified by her middle name because she fears people will treat her differently if they know she is transgender.
Soon after, three other TSA officers, all of them women and at least one of them a supervisor, entered the room, Olivia said.
TSA rules require that passengers be searched by officers of the same gender as they present. But, according to Olivia, the TSA supervisor told her that she would have to be patted down by a male officer.
After Olivia refused to be searched by a man, the officers told her that because she was not consenting to a search, she could not board her flight and would be escorted out of the terminal.
Olivia said she started crying and pleaded with the officers. “Can I just show you?” she recalled asking them.
TSA officers aren’t supposed to allow passengers to remove undergarments. But Olivia said the officers in the room with her did not object when Olivia pulled her ruffled, black and white skirt and underwear down to her ankles.
Olivia was then cleared to continue to her gate.
A Flawed System
What happened that day traumatized Olivia, who is now fearful of airports, and what she experienced reflects the worst fears of many transgender travelers, who say the TSA is failing them.
Shortcomings in the technology used by the TSA and insufficient training of the agency’s staff have made transgender and gender nonconforming travelers particularly vulnerable to invasive searches at airport checkpoints, interviews and a review of documents and data shows.
The TSA says that it is committed to treating all travelers equally and respectfully. But while the agency has known about the problems for several years, it still struggles to ensure the fair treatment of transgender and gender nonconforming people.
To understand the extent of the problem, ProPublica reviewed publicly available complaint data from the TSA’s website and asked transgender travelers to provide accounts of their experiences at airport checkpoints.
The review, which covered civil rights complaints filed from January 2016 through April 2019, found that 5%, or 298 complaints, were related to screening of transgender people, even though they are estimated to make up slightly less than 1% of the population.
This may understate the proportion of complaints from transgender travelers. When Olivia contacted the TSA, her complaint was filed in a different category — a catchall classification called “sex/gender/gender identity - not transgender.” That category accounts for 15% of the civil rights complaints in the period examined by ProPublica, but the TSA said it did not have a more specific breakdown of these complaints and could not say how many were, like Olivia’s, related in some way to gender identity and screening. ProPublica filed a Freedom of Information Act request in April seeking information about each complaint in those categories, but the agency has not yet provided any response.
When ProPublica asked transgender and gender nonconforming people to tell us about their experiences, we received 174 responses, many of them recounting humiliating treatment after being flagged by full-body scanners for additional scrutiny. Of those people, only 14 said they filed a complaint with the TSA. Many of those who did not file complaints said they didn’t know how, were afraid of outing themselves or didn’t want to relive the experience.
Some of the travelers who responded to ProPublica said they were asked by TSA officers to lift clothing to show private parts of their bodies or were pressured to expose their genitals so that TSA officers would allow them to pass through the security checkpoint.