We know that the pandemic isn’t #over, but with international travel restrictions easing, mask mandates being lifted state-by-state, and things returning to “normal” (is this normal?), the U.S. government seems eager to move on to the next version of life—pretending like the pandemic is over. This means travel is likely going to pick back up both domestically and internationally. For many of us, this comes with a sigh of relief knowing that we will be able to see family and friends and maybe go on holiday once again. However, this also means that many of us may have to face something that we haven’t experienced in a while—being a trans person in the airport.
You might be asking, “Can I just check myself as a piece of oversized luggage and get this over with?” Traveling as a transgender, gender non-conforming, or otherwise LGBTQ+ person, can come with feelings of anxiety and dread. For those who have transitioned during the pandemic and haven’t flown yet, the thought of navigating airport travel might be particularly nerve-racking. Being gender non-nonconforming in public is difficult enough without the extra added scrutiny of TSA agents, documents, carry-on drama, and body scanners.
The good news is that most trans people are able to travel through airport security without any incident. However, sometimes you will be asked to explain yourself, undergo additional screening, and potentially have unwanted and uncomfortable interactions with airport staff and security. While this can be stressful for most trans people, planning for these experiences can help you prepare for what might happen when you move through an airport. We wrote this guide to help you both know what to expect and what your rights are when it comes to traveling while trans.
What to expect when flying while transgender?
Documents: Legal Name and Gender Markers
While not all transgender people’s documents and identity cards match up or align with our genders, all passengers 18 years of age or older are required to provide proof of identity at check-in and at the security checkpoint. To book a flight, you need to submit your full legal name, date of birth, and gender marker. For domestic flights, the name and gender marker you use should match the name and gender marker on your government-issued photo ID. For international flights, make sure to use the name and gender that matches the information on your passport. If you are undocumented and flying domestically, you will have to show a valid photo ID, but remember this can be a valid passport or an alternative form of identification. This means that if your current ID has your deadname on it, you will have to use that name when booking your flight.
According to Trans Equality: “The only thing that TSA agents should be looking for is that the name on your ID matches the name on your boarding pass. It does not matter If your current gender presentation matches that gender marker on your ID and TSA agents shouldn’t comment on this.” However, if you no longer look like the picture on your ID, be aware that airport staff or agents may give you a hard time or question you. If possible, try to obtain a new copy of your government-issued ID or passport before you travel. If this isn’t possible, it might be a good idea to obtain a note from a healthcare professional explaining why your appearance has changed so that you don’t have to. If you are a FOLX member, please speak to your clinician about obtaining a letter for travel.
For people who have chosen the gender-neutral marker “X” on their driver’s license or passport, some airlines—including American Airlines, Delta, and United—have added in a third gender option other than ‘male’ or ‘female.’ But do know that even if your driver’s license or your passport has the gender-neutral marker “X”—you might have to choose M or F when booking a flight, especially if you are flying internationally. Regardless of what gender marker is on your documents or boarding pass, unfortunately, TSA agents often make split-second decisions about a passenger’s gender based on visual presentation alone. While this can be painful and unfair, it’s important to prepare yourself for any questions or issues that might arise regarding your documentation and gender presentation.
Is TSA Pre-Check worth it?
For $85, TSA PreCheck™️ allows registered travelers to get through security faster and with less hassle via “expedited screening.” Usually, passengers who register with PreCheck walk through a metal detector instead of a body scanner (although this is not always a guarantee). You are also able to leave on articles of clothing like shoes and belts. Once you apply online, the program gives you PreCheck status for up to five years. If financially accessible to you, this might be a good option if you travel by plane frequently. Note that during the approval process, you might need to disclose your deadname if you have legally changed your name.
If you go through airport security checkpoints without TSA PreCheck, make sure to give yourself plenty of time in case any unexpected issues arise.
Going Through Airport Security- Metal Detectors and Body Scanners
With TSA agents make snap decisions regarding people’s genders every day. In 2019, an investigation by ProPublica found that shortcomings in technology and lack of sufficient training have made many transgender and gender nonconforming travelers particularly vulnerable to invasive searches and privacy violations at airport checkpoints. Body scanners are designed to mark trans bodies as anomalies.
At this moment in time, TSA uses advanced imaging technology in the form of millimeter wave scanners to screen passengers through airport security checkpoints. This creates a system in which the scan of your body will be compared to a binary algorithm, based on two cisgender, able-bodied versions of “man” and “woman.” When the artificial intelligence (AI) comes across a body that does not match the anatomy coded into the system, a yellow box will pop up in the area under suspicion. This is the information that agents will use to search a passenger. We know this doesn’t just start with gender identity either, TSA has a long history of discrimination and harassment against passengers due to race, ethnicity, religion, and disability. These body scanners find “anomalies” in the forms of disabilities, racial characteristics, and other attributes that the system does not recognize as “normal”— like Black women’s hair, for one.
And while the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has announced that it will begin to roll out new gender-neutral screening processes by developing new AIT screening technology, when these changes will actually take effect remains unknown.
It’s important to know that full-body scanners are voluntary and you have the right to refuse to enter one. If you opt-out (or the body scanners detect something), you will be required to go through a pat-down by “an officer that is the same gender as the TSA officer’s assessment of how you present. Alternatively, you may choose to inform the officer of your gender identity and make a request that the pat-down be conducted by an officer of that gender,” according to these TSA guidelines.
What to expect during a pat-down?
You have the right to dress exactly as you want to and in a way that reflects and expresses your gender. However, when traveling by air, some transgender and non-binary people might choose to dress in a way that will minimize unwanted interactions and bias while traveling. Unfortunately, this isn’t a reality or possible for many of us, but know that certain types of clothing including binding materials or prosthetics may cause airport staff to undergo additional screenings. This might also happen if a body scanner picks up on an “anomaly” under your clothes that is incongruent with an operator’s gender selection. If a pat-down is required, know that you are allowed to request this be conducted in private, and you are legally entitled to bring a companion with you as a witness. Per the TSA website, you should never be asked to lift or remove any articles of clothing or to remove a prosthetic item. If this happens to you, please speak to a supervisor if a TSA agent harasses you or violates these guidelines.
If you are a transgender woman or trans femme, you might find that tucking can help you pass through body scanners without the extra scrutiny. If you are a trans man or a transgender person who packs, make sure that your packer is free of any metal pieces. If possible, we recommend not wearing a binder while traveling. If you have to bind, know that binders will usually require you to undergo extra screening and/or a limited pat-down of the chest area. It’s always good to be prepared for a pat-down, in case the scanner happens to set off an alarm. Remember, you cannot be asked to gender your gender-affirming prosthetics or any garments. If you are wearing a wig, you may request for a limited pat-down of the hairpiece or that you be permitted to pat down your own hair yourself.
Carry-on luggage items
Medication and supplies, such as HRT, as well as prosthetics, are allowed through the checkpoint after going through security, however, some trans travelers might feel safer putting these items in checked baggage. Know that gel-filled prosthetic items such as breast forms are not included in the 3oz liquid limit (as they are considered medically necessary for both trans women and trans femmes, as well as cisgender women who have undergone a mastectomy), but their presence may result in extra screening or questioning. If your hormones and supplies such as needles and syringes are in your carry-on, place these items in a separate plastic bag. It’s always a good idea to bring your prescriptions for medications in the form of a pharmacy receipt or letter from a healthcare professional. Know that you have the right to ask for a private screening if your bags need to be opened for any reason. For more detailed information on what to do with traveling with sharps, check out our article on HRT Needle and Syringe Safety.
Carrying condoms, lube, and sex toys is a common occurrence for anyone who wants to experience pleasure or have safe sex anywhere they go. Lots of people travel domestically and abroad with different types of sex toys, safer sex items, and types of birth control without issue. However, you should note that In some countries, traveling with “sexually explicit materials” may be used as evidence of sex work which may result in a passenger being detained. Trans people are often unfairly targeted or harassed, especially for being in possession of sex toys or other items. Make sure you do your homework when traveling abroad and know which borders you might be crossing.
How to communicate with TSA agents
- Know your rights—you have a right to privacy and can always speak with a supervisor at any time during the screening process at airport security checkpoints or check-in. If an issue arises, request that a TSA agent or staff take appropriate action. If the TSA personnel you speak with are unaware of your rights, you can pull up TSA’s Guidance for Transgender, Non-binary, and Gender Non-conforming Passengers on your phone.
- Be polite, respectful, and direct. You have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Try to stay calm and collected. It can be extremely frustrating and infuriating to navigate transphobia, especially in such a high-stress environment, but try your best to stay level-headed.
- Remember, you should never be asked to lift or remove any articles of clothing or to remove a prosthetic item. This is clearly outlined on the TSA website. If this happens to you, please speak to a supervisor if an agent violates these guidelines.
- Consider carrying a Discreet Notification Card to disclose specific personal information, in the form of a printed version or a photo on your phone. This is a method for communicating discreet specific information to TSA agents. All agents and staff should be trained to recognize this card and take appropriate action during screening procedures. You can also call ahead of your flight. Call the TSA Cares helpline at (855) 787-2227 and request the help of a passenger support specialist, who can assist you when you arrive at the airport.
- Remember to stay calm as possible if approached. You might be approached by a Behavioral Detection Officer (BDO). BDOs are agents who walk around looking for “suspicious behavior” and identify people whose mannerisms and behaviors seem consistent with those trying to conceal criminal activity. If you are approached, it’s natural to feel anxious. Remember to give simple answers to any questions and know that you haven’t done anything wrong. It might be helpful to share why you are particularly anxious, even if that means disclosing your trans or non-binary status to the officer.
How to file a complaint with TSA if you have been discriminated against
If you believe that you were discriminated against or that your screening was inappropriate, you should ask to talk to a supervisor at the checkpoint and ask to make an official complaint. Make sure to provide the name of the TSA agent who conducted your screening or who was otherwise involved. You may also submit your concern to the TSA Contact Center or email or submit a civil rights complaint. The United States Department of Homeland Security also has a Travel Redress Inquiry Program portal through which travelers can seek redress for negative screening experiences.
If possible, you should make a complaint immediately after the incident, or as soon as you are able and provide as many details as possible. You should include the airport, date, time, and as much information about the incident and people involved as possible.
Information and an optional form for filing complaints with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties can be found here. Fill it out and email it to CRCLCompliance@hq.dhs.gov, or, if you cannot save the form, email the same information it asks for to that address.
Information and an optional form for filing complaints with the TSA Office for Civil Rights and Liberty can be found here. You can submit a complaint by sending the form or an email containing the same information to TSAExternalCompliance@dhs.gov. You may also contact TSA prior to travel through “Talk to TSA” or the TSA Contact Center at 1-866-289- 9673 and TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov.
For additional information, you can always read through TSA Security Screening.