Airport Body Scanners Have a Gender Problem

By Melanie Ehrenkranz on at

Airport security is famously dehumanising, and reports reveal that for transgender travellers, this can be an especially intrusive and traumatising experience given the current status of screening. From January 2016 through April 2019, nearly 300 civil rights complaints were filed regarding US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening of transgender people.

ProPublica published a report last week documenting the issues transgender individuals face when going through airport security, and the publication discovered through publicly available TSA complaint data that there were 298 of such complaints, which made up five per cent of the total complaints in that time period. ProPublica also reportedly received 174 responses when they put out a call to transgender and gender-nonconforming people to share their security experiences, of which only 14 claimed they filed a complaint with TSA. This indicates that the number of complaints filed is hardly an exhaustive insight into the breadth of civil rights violations that have occurred, and some of these that were reported might have been relegated to a different category altogether.

For instance, a 36-year-old transgender woman named Olivia told ProPublica that when she went through the body scanner at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in the US state of Florida, it highlighted her groin area, and she was eventually taken to a private room for a pat-down, where she told the agent that what she was feeling was her penis. Three other TSA officers then came into the room, and even though TSA protocol is to be patted down by an officer of the same gender, Olivia said that a supervisor informed her a male officer would have to pat her down. After her refusal to be patted down by a male officer, TSA agents said she couldn’t board her flight. Olivia told ProPublica that she was upset and asked if she could show them her penis. The officers allegedly allowed this to happen, and then allowed her to board her flight.

According to Olivia, her complaint was filed in “sex/gender/gender identity - not transgender” which ProPublica noted makes up 15 per cent of the civil rights complaints from the aforementioned time frame.

When Gizmodo reached out to the TSA to comment on reports that transgender travellers have experienced invasive searches, with some individuals claiming they have been pressured to show their genitals, a spokesperson sent the pat-down section from the TSA’s page on procedures impacting transgender travelers, highlighting the line that read “You will not be asked to remove or lift any article of clothing to reveal sensitive body areas.”

Of the 174 responses ProPublica received, they reportedly heard from some travellers that they were asked to show TSA agents their genitals or certain body parts before they were cleared at the checkpoint. “TSA is committed to ensuring all travellers are treated with respect and courtesy,” a TSA spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email. The statement continued:

“Screening is conducted without regard to a person’s race, colour, sex, gender identity, national origin, religion or disability. TSA continually reviews procedures to improve security and the passenger experience. Officers receive training and briefings to ensure that they communicate, and are respectful, when screening an individual. TSA’s standard operating procedures for screening travellers and their accessible property at the checkpoints are developed around the technology and equipment available to TSA Officers and exist to ensure the security of aviation and travellers. The procedures are designed to support TSA’s mission to detect and deter threats to our aviation systems, and are reviewed by TSA’s Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman, and Traveler Engagement office to ensure compliance with Federal civil rights laws.

“TSA holds employees to the highest standard of professionalism and integrity. If a passenger has concerns about their screening process, we encourage them to notify a supervisor immediately or contact the TSA Contact Center.”

The egregious accounts from transgender travellers of being pressured to show parts of their body to TSA agents is absolutely in violation of the TSA’s own protocols. Outside of this misconduct, the technology itself is flawed when it comes to screening someone based on their gender. According to TSA’s page for transgender passengers, a TSA officer “presses a button designating a gender (male/female) based on how you present yourself.” This, however, puts the onus on TSA agents to make an in-the-moment call on what gender they will assign to a traveller as they are passing through the screening process, and for transgender, gender nonbinary, and individuals who just simply may not fit the gender stereotype held by a certain officer, the selected “gender” button (of which there are only two) can lead to false alarms during the scan. This is ultimately what leads to additional screening, in which horrifically intrusive accounts like Olivia’s might occur.

“I flip a coin in my head and hit a button, wait for the person to walk out of the scan, point at the screen and ask the person: Did I scan you right?” a current TSA officer told ProPublica. “It is sort of a discreet way of asking.”

An op-ed in the New York Times by a genderqueer professor describes a nearly identical experience to some of the accounts illustrated in the ProPublica report, which also called out the faulty system of a gut-based decision of checking “male” or “female” when travellers pass through the scanners. “When the machine had finished its second scan, I stepped out and waited,” Alex Marzano-Lesnevich wrote in the op-ed in April. “I found myself looking more closely at my fellow passengers. How would I sort them if I had to? How would they sort me? Did they think I was a man or a woman? Did anyone think I was neither and therefore actually see me? Then I noticed the agent’s expression shift. He looked as miserable and uncomfortable as I felt. I turned around. On the screen was the outline of a person, arms up, with just one little yellow box of irregularity – the ‘alarm.’”

Marzano-Lesnevich wrote that the alarm identified in the body scan was highlighting their crotch, and characterised the subsequent pat-down as “invasive and humiliating.”

Because the current body scanning system analyses an individual’s anatomy based exclusively on the button a TSA agent presses, it has the potential to prompt false alarms for individuals that don’t fit a specific gender identity with the corresponding anatomy that the software is scanning for. Eliminating options so that successful scans aren’t dependent on a gender profile fitting the corresponding anatomy as well as an identification system that isn’t based on the whim of an agent nor requires someone to publicly state their gender identity would create a more accurate, less invasive, less biased, and ultimately safer situation for all travellers.

What’s evident through a litany of demeaning anecdotes and hundreds of civil rights complaints – not including the misconduct individuals didn’t report—is that the TSA’s scanning system is demonstrably flawed, and a failure to remedy it so that it accommodates all travellers is a failure to prevent gross violations of the transgender community.

Featured image: Getty