A Guide to Navigating Airport Security When You're Trans or Non-Binary
“Airports are already stressful spaces, post-9/11 and now with covid situations,” says activist Fox Fisher, but being queer or trans can add to that. “Personally, I have been often searched after being flagged up in the scanners, especially if I’m wearing a packer,” Fox explains.
A packer is the padding or phallic object a lot of trans men wear to give a bulge in the crotch area and it can raise attention at airport security, as can binders, which many trans masc and nonbinary people where to flatten the appearance of their chest.
Trans women and trans femmes, too, can have unwanted experiences at airport security, specifically when it comes to setting off scanners. As the design academic Sasha Costanza-Chock explains, airport security systems are built with gender normativity (or cis normativity) in mind, meaning that they – along with the TSA officers who operate them – tend to flag up any body types that are not recognised as ‘typically’ male or female.
“The three-dimensional contours of my body, at millimetre resolution, differ from the statistical norm of female bodies as understood by the data set and risk algorithm designed by the manufacturer of the millimetre wave scanner,” Sacha writes of their own experience getting flagged. Then came the confusion over which gender of officer should be assigned to pat Sacha down: “Now I’m standing in public, flanked by two TSA agents, with a line of curious travellers watching the whole interaction.”
Fox has found the experiences Sacha describes to be deeply uncomfortable. “After my top surgery in Florida, the security person didn’t fully understand I was trans and had top surgery and was particularly aggressive with his scanning and searching of my body. I felt humiliated. The stress from his mis-treatment of me and a mean air steward resulted in me having a full body rash. I had to go to A&E on arrival in the UK. Not a great experience.”
Watchouts at airport security do not stop here. Personally, like many other lesbians (as well as bi women, queer and trans people and people into kink) I have been through teeth-gritting experiences such as having airport security staff whip a sex toy or two out my bag at the search desk, drawing unwanted attention. A scene where this happens features in the cult lesbian TV show The L-Word, and it has since been considered something of a lesbian airport rite of passage… sometimes humorous, sometimes excruciating.
"My passport says M on it and I haven’t yet changed my birth certificate. Also I identify as non-binary so am still waiting to be able to have X on my passport (although I am concerned that may affect my safey in places like Russia, as it would out me as non-binary in countries which aren’t supportive).” - Fox
Then there is the issue of documents. Black and Brown queer people may experience racial profiling at the airport, and particularly queer people from the Middle East like Fox who noticed things became much worse on this front post-9/11. Queer migrants might find that their documents (or lack of) leave them aggressively questioned at security or at risk of detention. Trans or nonbinary queer people might find that if their perceived gender or lived gender does not match up to the gender on their documents, they come under questioning or are met with confusion.
“I’ve traveled to many counties to film for my documentary series My Genderation or give talks and workshops,” explains Fox on this last point. “My passport says M on it and I haven’t yet changed my birth certificate. Also I identify as non-binary so am still waiting to be able to have X on my passport (although I am concerned that may affect my safety in places like Russia, as it would out me as non-binary in countries which aren’t supportive).” This can often lead to misgendering at the airport.
Finally, as Constanza-Chock points out, Disabled queer people may also face uncomfortable situations at airport security, “(they are) more likely to be flagged as risky if they have non-normative body shapes and/or use prostheses, as well as anyone who uses a wearable or implanted medical device.” With all of this to contend with, airport security can be a complicated and overwhelming place. It can also ‘out’ LGBTQ+ people in intrusive ways that can lead to further discrimination. However, this shouldn’t put LGBTQ+ people off travelling. Below is our advice and support for queer people travelling through airport security.
Do your research
Knowledge is power, so school yourself on what kind of situations can unfold at the airport. Along with the information above, you can check travel safety lists before you consider flying, like this one from Asher Fergusson, which tells you about general attitudes to LGBTQ+ people in various countries around the world, and might help you get a gauge on how to deal with security.
Know your rights
Part of your research should involve learning your rights. Trans Equality Network provide a resource called Know Your Rights on airport security. As they explain, “It does not matter whether your current gender presentation matches the gender marker on your ID or your presentation in your ID photo, and TSA officers should not comment on this.” In addition, “Travellers should never be required to lift, remove, or raise an article of clothing to reveal a prosthetic item and should not be asked to remove it.” This guide is aimed at US travellers and focusses on TSA agents, but there are other guides online too.
Prep emotionally and if necessary, physically
“Work out what you might need to do for your own survival, whether that's adjusting your dress code to stand out less as a queer or gender-nonconforming person or wearing baggy clothes – sometimes passing or remaining less visible can keep attention off you. As awful as it is to have to change how you want to express yourself, it's sometimes a matter of safety,” says Fox.
Remember, the system is broken not you
“At each stage of this interaction, airport security technology, databases, algorithms, risk assessment, and practices are all designed based on the assumption that there are only two genders, and that gender presentation will conform with so-called biological sex,” Constanza-Chock reminds us, summarising: “The system is biased against us.”
Constanza-Chock is part of Design Justice network, a group of design experts fighting to make design less biased towards marginalised people and reduce the adverse affects of biased design in the long term.
You are who you are
“Ultimately, you know you are the person on your ID and you have rights,” Fox concludes. “So remember that these situations can never take away who you are. If staff are doing something which you feel uncomfortable with, you are within your rights to start filming and document what is happening.”
And as AFAR points out, if you have any issues with airline or TSA personnel, as with any negative customer experience, you can usually report it via the airport security company’s website.