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How the TSA policies impact transgender travelers

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November 22, 2010

Transgender Travelers and New TSA Policies

As transgender people and our families prepare to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, many have expressed concern about the various new invasive equipment and procedures at the airport announced by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

NCTE opposes the routine use of full-body scanners and the new invasive patdown procedures. We have and will continue to work with the TSA to minimize privacy intrusions and ensure respectful treatment of transgender travelers.

We want all of our members and friends to have safe and uneventful travel this season; here are some ideas and information to help you do that.

First, it is important that you KNOW YOUR RIGHTS. Even if TSA personnel are not always familiar with travelers' rights, such as the right to decline a full-body scan, you should know them. You may need to politely inform the officer of your rights and choices.

Second, calmly and clearly expressing your choices is very important. This makes it easier for the TSA agents to understand what your needs are and may help you get through the checkpoint more quickly.


Airports are increasingly using full-body scanning technology to screen passengers, as a primary or secondary method of screening. These machines reveal intimate contours of travelers' bodies. [For a fuller understanding of whole body imaging and transgender people, see NCTE's resource.]

You have the right to choose whether or not to be screened in this way. If you choose not to be screened with a full-body scan, which shows TSA personnel an image of your unclothed body, you will patted down instead.

New, more invasive, patdown procedures will be used for passengers who decline a full-body image scan, set off a metal detector, or are randomly selected for additional screening. They are not to be used on travelers under the age of 13.

The new procedures are much more intrusive than in the past. They involve TSA officers using their palms and fingers to touch underneath and between breasts, inside thighs, and in the groin area and buttocks. While the TSA has said these new procedures are intended to improve safety, many travelers find the techniques extremely uncomfortable and inappropriately intrusive.

The new policy presents transgender travelers with a difficult choice between invasive touching and a scan that reveals the intimate contours of the body. Unless and until NCTE and our allies can get these unreasonable policies fixed, NCTE encourages transgender travelers to think through the available options and make their own decisions about which procedure feels least uncomfortable and less unsafe.


Travelers should keep the following points in mind:

  • Both travelers and TSA personnel have the right to be treated with dignity, discretion and respect. If you encounter any issues, politely ask to speak to a supervisor immediately. Remain polite. Do not raise your voice or threaten TSA staff; this only results in additional delays.
  • You have the right to opt out of a full-body scan in favor of a manual patdown. It is your choice.
  • You have the right to choose whether a pat down is conducted in the public screening area or in a private area, and, if in a private area, whether to be accompanied by a travel companion.
  • You have the right to have manual search procedures performed by an officer who is of the same gender as the gender you are currently presenting yourself as. This does not depend on the gender listed on your ID, or on any other factor. If TSA officials are unsure who should pat you down, ask to speak to a supervisor and calmly insist on the appropriate officer.
  • You should not be subjected to additional screening or inquiry because of any discrepancy between a gender marker on an ID and your appearance. As long as your ID has a recognizable picture of you on it, with your legal name and birth date, it should not cause any problem.
  • Foreign objects under clothing such as binding, packing or prosthetic devices may show up as unknown or unusual images on a body scan or patdown, which may lead TSA personnel to do additional screening. This does not mean that you cannot fly with these items, only they may lead to further screening. Be prepared to give a brief description of what they are or check them in your luggage so that you can minimize scrutiny and delays.
  • Items containing liquid, gel or powder substances will trigger additional security screenings and therefore we strongly recommend that you pack these items in your checked luggage or leave them at home.
  • Wigs or hairpieces may require additional screening if they are bulky or not form-fitting. If you have gone through a metal detector or body scanner and TSA personnel want to do additional screening of a wig or hairpiece, you may request that a patdown be limited to your hairpiece or that you be permitted to pat the area down yourself and have your hands swiped for chemical residue.
  • If you are carrying medically prescribed items, such as syringes for hormone injections or vaginal dilators, it is very helpful to have proof of the medical necessity of the item(s). Ask your doctor for a letter stating that he or she has prescribed the item or keep medical devices in their pharmacy packaging that includes a prescription label. Be prepared to briefly explain the purpose of the item if asked.

Calmly state the problem and ask the TSA to take the appropriate action. If TSA personnel are unaware of your rights, there are sometimes placards with general information, such as the right to refuse to enter a full-body scanner, in the screening area. You can politely refer TSA screeners to them.

We strongly encourage you not to get in a confrontation with TSA personnel if at all possible. Threatening the TSA or other passengers or acting violently can result in very serious criminal charges. However, this does not mean that you cannot assert your rights, just that you should do so as calmly and positively as possible.

If you encounter a problem, you have the right to file a complaint about any incident with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. We encourage you to do this immediately after the incident, or as soon as you are able, and to also let NCTE know of the problem. This helps both us and the TSA know of the problem and hopefully resolve and prevent future problems.


NCTE is working hard and has spent considerable time and resources with the TSA to address the concerns of transgender travelers, and we will continue to do so. Realistically, the policies outlined above are not going to change because they are invasive to transgender passengers but because they are intrusive to everyone subjected to them. In this instance, joining our voices more generally with other Americans may be the most effective way to bring about change.

If you would like to take action as well, here are some suggestions:

  • Join together with other Americans who are protesting this policy, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, privacy groups and others. You can visit the ACLU's Take Action and Tell Us Your Story pages:
  • Contact your members of Congress and urge them to take action. You can reach both your Representative and your Senators by calling the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.
  • If you decide to participate in other actions, such as the "Opt Out" day proposed for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, consider carefully any additional challenges or risks that might be present for transgender people when making your decision.
About NCTE

The National Center for Transgender Equality is a national social justice organization devoted to ending discrimination and violence against transgender people through education and advocacy on national issues of importance to transgender people. By empowering transgender people and our allies to educate and influence policymakers and others, NCTE facilitates a strong and clear voice for transgender equality in our nation's capital and around the country. The National Center for Transgender Equality is a 501(c)3 organization.