Alarming TSA

Julia Lee | staff writer

Shadi Petosky, a trans woman, made national headlines in September when she live-tweeted her experience with the Transportation Security Administration at an Orlando airport.

TSA officers stopped Petosky at a full-body scanner for showing an “anomaly” — her penis — according to her tweets. The extensive questioning in the back room of the airport that Petosky said ensued resulted in feelings of denigration and a missed flight. Though the TSA has since changed their policy to reflect Petosky’s complaints about her experience, many activists are still unsatisfied with its language surrounding gender ambiguity.

According to the TSA’s official website, airports use both millimeter wave advanced imaging technology and walk-through metal detectors to screen passengers as a form of security. Millimeter wave scanners detect objects concealed underneath a person’s clothing by using a form of electromagnetic radiation.

When Petosky’s penis showed up on the scanner, the security guards flagged her because the genitals didn’t match up with her gender — female.

The TSA’s policy on transgender passengers is stated under the Frequently Asked Questions: they will be screened “as he or she presents at the security checkpoint.” In other words, a person who identifies as a woman will be screened for female reproductive organs and a person who identifies as a man will be screened for male reproductive organs, regardless of whether his, her or their anatomy aligns with his, her or their identity.

Another section of the site dedicated to transgender passengers states that TSA officers operating full-body scanners press either a blue or pink button designating the person’s gender as male or female so the scanning process can indicate areas of the body “warranting further inspection.” Petosky described this as a luck of the draw, saying, “If [the officers] press the pink button and it falls outside body calibration, your groin will get flagged. If they press blue and you have a binder or breasts, your chest gets flagged.”

Petosky has had her groin examined eight times since the incident. She also stated that the #TravelingWhileTrans hashtag has become an amalgamation of Twitter users documenting their experiences with full-body scanners, and that the open congressional letter written to Administrator Peter Neffenger of the TSA details the issues quite well.

“[The government] needs trans-inclusive systems to be designed… policing sex by sight-reading people affects anyone who doesn’t conform to sex stereotypes and plenty of people who do. Government security can’t sight-read, press a pink or blue button, and hold you responsible if they guess wrong,” said Petosky.

When addressing situations in which the scanner detects certain discrepancies, such as when it encounters a transgender traveler whose anatomy doesn’t line up with the standard binary, all TSA officers were trained to use the term “anomaly.”

The TSA has since made a change in their terminology — from “anomaly” to “alarm.”

According to one Twitter user, the word “alarm” isn’t any better — it’s “just a new indignity.”

As defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, an alarm is a warning of danger. Using this term to describe people equates them to that definition, and that in itself is an act of unwarranted disrespect. Although the TSA recognized Petosky’s negative experience and acted upon it with intentions of moving towards “taking potential civil rights violations very seriously”, the supposed improvement in terminology is not much more progressive, if at all.

A purpose of using terminology, especially in the workplace, is to communicate a message in a concise manner — meaning that as long as whoever you’re speaking to knows what you’re referring to when a predetermined word has been stated, the goal has been achieved. As an agency that considers integrity to be one of its core values, the TSA should reform its rhetoric as to be more respectful of and not demean its passengers.

When asked about her view on the current state of the trans community as well as the general process of bringing equality and justice to it, Petosky noted that while there exists a passive notion that progressive policies are the natural order of things, it’s people who work hard to alter the order of those things that bring us closer to equality.

“We have made gains now that it’s harder for people to use violence and brutality to enforce sex stereotypes, but it’s still happening. Massive numbers of people want trans people to not exist…Look at any comments thread on any trans article…There is a lot more work to do,” she said. ◆

Photo by Transportation Security Administration. Released to public domain.

Julia is a first-year student intending to major in Social Work and minor in Creative Writing. She feels really lucky to be a part of such a progressive publication like The Fourth Wave and to go to a university that offers so many resources and opportunities to its students.

Check out more from our February 2016 issue!