March 5, 2016 at 4:37 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
New TSA body-scanner rule criticized as anti-trans

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TSA has made final a new rule criticized for being anti-trans. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

LGBT groups are criticizing a new body-scanner rule made final by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration this week as discriminatory against transgender people.

The new rule, made final on Wednesday, codifies existing policy for TSA body-scanners, which requires an agent to select a pink or blue button based on the perceived gender of a person traveling through U.S. airports. According to LGBT groups, transgender people as a result of the policy are stopped by TSA agents and forced to undergo pat downs and inspections of genital areas and chests.

The National Center for Transgender Equality, Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT & HIV Project denounced the new TSA rule in a joint statement. Among those quoted in the statement is Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“It is completely unacceptable to require Americans to discuss their genitals with uniformed government officials in order to travel by air,” Keisling said. “But that’s exactly what the body scanner program means for many transgender people. TSA has ignored the public’s very real concerns about the efficacy and the real harms of this technology. TSA is spending billions on security theater that seems to do little but erode all travelers’ privacy and dignity.”

According to LGBT groups, TSA has under the policy asked hundreds of U.S. transgender travelers to lift or remove clothing to reveal undergarments or prosthetics. Additionally, transgender travelers are required to undergo multiple pat-downs, asked questions about their bodies and have been blocked from boarding flights because of a “groin alarm.”

TSA issued the rule to comply with a 2013 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which ordered the agency to engage in comment period on the use of body-scanners. Despite a time period of three years, more than 1,000 comments and multiple challenges by advocacy groups, TSA decided codify its existing policy. The new rule is set to take effect May 2, 2016.

Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan, trans/gender non-conforming justice project director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, said under the policy transgender people are “dehumanized and placed in harm’s way.”

“Transgender people are regularly harassed and humiliated by current screening procedures, which treats transgender people’s bodies as ‘alarms’ and thus subjecting them to physical and emotional mistreatment,” Rodriguez-Roldan said. “Current policies create a situation where transgender people are dehumanized and placed in harm’s way by constantly outing them and forcing them to disclose their personal lives with TSA agents in front of everyone in order to travel by airplane.”

Rodriguez-Roldan said TSA “needs to institute screening algorithms in their scanners that are universal” instead of relying stereotypes about appearance to determine a person’s gender.

TSA makes the new rule final despite an October 2015 letter signed by 32 members of Congress, including Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), calling on TSA to reform the way it screens transgender passengers.

The discriminatory impact of the body-scanners on transgender people is but one criticism against the machines. According to a report in USA Today, they’ve also have been condemned for other health and privacy reasons. Another issue for the machines is their hefty cost, which is estimated to have reached $2.1 billion from 2008 through 2017.

Despite these issues, TSA insists the machines are the best way to protect U.S. travelers from terror attacks, according to the USA Today article.

Mike England, a TSA spokesperson, insisted in a statement to the Washington Blade the policy in place treats transgender people fairly.

“TSA officers are trained to properly screen members of the transgender community,” England said. “TSA recognizes the concerns that some members of the transgender community may have with certain security screening procedures at the nation’s security checkpoints. TSA is committed to ensuring all travelers are treated with respect and courtesy and is continuing to enhance training efforts in response to concerns raised by the transgender community.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

1 Comment
  • The LGBT issues are valid, and clearly illustrate the weaknesses of these machines, and TSA procedures. AIT technology, or whole body imaging, with its known weaknesses, vulnerabilities and high failure rate, has not yet progressed to the point where it can or should be relied upon as the primary method for screening passengers. Privacy and health issues associated with these machines also render them unsuited for use on human beings at the present time.

    Even if the machines were infallible, however, their value is questionable, because airport and TSA workers, with their bags, bypass security and are not screened at all. Thus a passenger can go through security completely clean, and pick up guns, explosives, or other items on the other side from some unscreened TSA or Airport worker. This has happened, most recently with the Atlanta gun smuggling operation.

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