For two years, 27-year-old Reilly Clemens hadn’t gone home. Not because she didn’t have the money or the will to travel, but because she feared what she might experience at the airport.
Clemens, a women’s studies graduate student of the University of Florida, is transgender. And for trans people, airline travel — which is already a hassle for any gender — can become a complicated, frightening proposition, especially when it comes to security checks.
“Who’s going to perform the search? Where’s it going to be performed? I feel like someone would mistreat me or something would happen,” Clemens said. “There’d be an awkward pause where I’d have to explain that I’m trans.”
In the trans community, it’s understood procedures at airports are overly invasive and, at times, uncomfortable. Transgender people can experience problems if their appearance does not match the picture or gender identified on their identification.
Ryan Nowak-Crawford, an 18-year-old undergraduate at the University of Southern California, said it’s not systematic discrimination, but it could potentially lead to discrimination.
“Having the security person check you can make a trans person very uncomfortable,” Crawford said. “If that particular security official had something against trans people, it could make your life difficult.”
Transgender people face other problems as well. Those wearing prosthetics are often patted down and screened again after an initial screening, according to the TSA.
Clemens said that while it makes sense to check for banned items, when compared with other means of travel, it seems excessive and unnecessary.
“I feel the same way about that as I feel about someone who has to take a sip of breast milk that they are bringing onto the plane,” Clemens said.
Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality (TrasnEquality), said that although she has heard many people say they’ve experienced problems when trying to fly, the amount of stories is decreasing.
“It does seem to have made a difference that they have software that is supposed to eliminate individual body images,” Tobin said. “Any group of people who somebody sees as being different is likely to feel their privacy and dignity is at risk of being invaded.”
Clemens and Crawford agree that one of the main problems transgender people face is that people assume that gender identity can only be determined by genitalia.
“At the end of the day we have this binary. We assume that people who have an ‘F’ for female cannot be what they claim they are if they don’t also have a vagina,” Clemens said. “That’s rather terrifying and yet completely predictable.”
Tobin said she believes the best way to stop the problems is to educate people and raise awareness. TransEquality has recently been asked to deliver training videos to a select group of TSA officers. Tobin said that though they had not yet had the opportunity to train the front line security officers, they view their accomplishment as a small success.
“We don’t think that training can solve the problems, but we’re certainly thinking about doing this to help with the bigger problem,” Tobin said.
One important recommendation: the name on the ticket should match the name on the ID. Other tips from Crawford, Clemens and Tobin include learning the legalities ahead of time, being polite and assertive, and not wearing prosthetics when flying if possible.
Clemens said the general public needs to learn to adapt to the presence of a growing transgender community and that trans people should not have to be fearful of traveling before or when they’re transitioning.
“There is no transition camp where you can go for a few weeks to transition,” Clemens said.
So for now, until the TSA makes its own transition, transgender people should prepare for turbulence at their local airports. It’s going to be a bumpy ride to acceptance.
Visit TransEquality.org/Issues/travel.html or TSA.gov/traveler-information/transgender-travelers for more information.