How a woman’s ordeal at the Orlando airport went viral and started a conversation about what it means to travel while transgender

How a woman’s ordeal at the Orlando airport went viral and started a conversation about what it means to travel while transgender

After enjoying the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal late last month, Shadi Petosky was traveling back home when Transportation Security Administration officers at the Orlando International Airport detained her for an "anomaly" in her body scan.

If you've been to a commercial airport post-9/11, you've probably passed through a full-body scanner like the one that Petosky had to walk through. Critics have objected to their use, citing privacy concerns because they allow TSA agents to look at images of passengers' bodies through their clothing; others say the scanners are critical to national security. But for people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming, something as simple as passing through the scanner can have humiliating consequences.

Petosky, who is a transgender woman and a writer, began tweeting her experience after she stepped into the machine, where officers select a pink or blue button to scan travelers based on the gender the officer perceives them to be. People whose bodies don't conform to their perceived gender can be subject to additional screenings and pat-downs.

On Twitter, Petosky says after the scanner picked up an "anomaly," she told the officer she was transgender, but an agent told her to "get back in the scanning machine as a man or it was going to be a problem." Petosky was put in a small room and patted down as police officers and an explosives specialist were called in. Petosky says she left the ordeal sobbing, and she missed her American Airlines flight. A spokesperson for the airline said she was immediately rebooked for the next available flight at no charge, but Petosky says after asking American Airlines employees for a boarding pass, employees told an Orlando police officer to escort her from the airport. The officer refused and told the employees to give her a ticket.

"I don't think my body is an anomaly," she wrote in a viral tweet. "I like tons of people with my body. Can there be more buttons?"

Mark Howell, a spokesman for the TSA, says the agency released a statement about the incident.

"Our officers are trained to properly screen members of the transgender community," the statement says. "TSA takes all potential civil rights violations very seriously and conducted a review of the incident. After examining closed circuit TV video and other available information, TSA has determined that the evidence shows our officers followed TSA's strict guidelines. Supervisory personnel and a Passenger Support Specialist participated in the screening to ensure guidelines were met."

Howell also included information about how officers are trained to screen transgender passengers.

"Transgender persons will be screened as he or she presents themselves at the security checkpoint," according to the guidelines. "The advanced imaging technology used to screen passengers has software that looks at the anatomy of men and women differently. ... You may request a private screening or to speak with a supervisor at any time."

Petosky's incident with TSA officials was picked up by multiple media outlets and sparked a conversation online called #TravelingWhileTrans. Many transgender and gender-nonconforming people shared that they had also felt violated and embarrassed through the TSA screening process, and often, it invalidated their identity in front of strangers. The sentiment isn't unusual – 17 percent of transgender people report facing harassment from airport staff and TSA officials, and 11 percent reported they were denied equal treatment, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.

Logan Casey was waiting for his flight at the airport when he saw Petosky's situation on social media. Casey, who is a transgender man and a political science doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, suddenly felt on edge about his surroundings and shared his experiences online.

Casey says before his physical transition a few years ago, he would still wear a binding undershirt that would show up on the scanner as additional material. Agents gave him an enhanced pat down, but didn't understand when he explained why he wore it. As part of their gender presentation, some trans men will wear prosthetic penises, which are vital for them, but set off scanners. In one instance, Casey's bag was flagged, and he was forced to explain to agents why he was carrying hormone medication. Another time after Casey opted out of a body scan and was being patted down by a male guard, the guard looked at him with disgust and asked, "What are you?" It got so bad, Casey says he chose to drive 10 hours back to his home for the holidays instead of getting on a plane because it was less stressful.

"At this point I get through more easily because I have transitioned," he says. "The reason the awful interactions have gone down have a lot to do with the privilege of having health care and the access to financial resources for surgery."

Another important aspect of why Casey's incidents with the TSA have stopped is because his documents now match his gender identity. Changing your name and other documents can be cost-prohibitive, and some state and federal agencies require people to get a court order or surgery, which some transgender people may not want to have.

"I think it's important to connect this particular issue to broader structural systems of violence trans people, especially trans women and trans women of color, face daily," he says. "This is a particularly public example of the surveillance scrutiny trans people face, but it's part of a much larger experience."

Gina Duncan, who is the transgender inclusion director for Equality Florida Action, says she reached out to Petosky after the incident and has spoken with TSA officials about reviewing their guidelines. As more people start expressing themselves as gender-neutral or gender-nonconforming, this same situation could become exacerbated, she says.

"I think we're seeing that while the TSA can say they follow guidelines, the tone and enforcement of those guidelines has been heavy-handed, and overzealous people have been involved," Duncan says. "People should not have to fear flying or go through this demeaning process. Shadi's story has shined a light on this situation."

For many Orlando police officers, LGBT liaison Lt. James Young is the first person who introduces them to terms such as "gender expression" or "transgender." He says his diversity training teaches officers how to interact with LGBT people in a way that respects their privacy and puts them at ease. Young says he and Duncan are organizing a training seminar at Valencia College to make sure local public safety officers are educated on the issues.

"We cover all the basics to ensure we're following our philosophy of treating everyone with respect and dignity," he says. "As society changes, our job as police officers is to keep up with those changes."

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