Alarming Bodies: the TSA still has work to do when it comes to trans issues

As some people are doubtless aware, the Transportation Security Administration has been using imaging technology body scans as a security measure in place of and in addition to metal detectors. As of this week, it may impossible to opt out of a body scan in favour of other methods. The idea is that the scan will expose weapons, drugs, and other contraband even if it is hidden under clothing and not made of metal. The machines have two buttons– male and female, to account for differences in anatomy. The TSA agent operating the machine picks a button for each passenger based on how they present, according to the TSA website. This seems fine. After all, they are very sure that their screening is “conducted without regard to a person’s race, color, sex, gender identity, national origin, religion or disability.” Well, maybe.

However, it has most definitely not been fine for a number of transgender passengers, who have found themselves subject to pat-downs, scrutiny, and harassment when the reality of their bodies does not match up with what the machine expects to see for a particular setting. Feminine-presenting people have been flagged as having something suspicious in their pants (when it is actually their genitals). Masculine-presenting people have been accused of having contraband strapped to their chests (breast tissue, frequently bound to appear flat). There have been cases in which the TSA employee was not sure and simply guessed, correctly or incorrectly depending on how one defines that.

This is not something transpeople can avoid– surgeries are expensive and not everyone wants them, and few transfolk have the means to cocoon themselves for the entirety of the switchover like Caitlyn Jenner, only to emerge butterfly-like at the end, presenting as is rightful. For most people, it is a gradual process taking years during which life continues alongside. For me, it has been roughly thirteen years since I began referring to myself as “he”, and I have only this year gotten my legal identity changed over to reflect this. I do not have the option to seclude myself until I look the way a man is expected to look (if I ever do), and I am sure I should not have to, seeing as I have finished high school, attended college, become a historian, and otherwise been extremely busy for much of this time. I still have to occasionally defend myself physically while using public restrooms, but I’m used to that. I’ve learned to adapt, life goes on.

It has recently been brought to my attention that the TSA has re-evaluated their protocol for dealing with people whose bodies differ from what is standard for their gender, but the change has been strictly cosmetic– rather than being referred to as “anomalies”, surprise body parts will now be termed “alarms”.

This is ridiculous.

I understand that the TSA is trying to be respectful, and I applaud them for the effort, but the problem here is not one of linguistics. The problem is that the machines cannot tell flesh from clothing and contraband, and so there are settings to decide what is allowed to be labelled flesh and what must be flagged as suspicious. But how thorough are these settings? How much breast allotment is there on the “woman” setting, how much extra genital room on the “man”? This is not simply a trans issue. This is a security issue. How much explosive gel or powder could a flat-chested person fit in a bra and have it not flag as a problem because they were scanned as a woman? Are we to have rules against padded bras on airplanes? What of prosthetics? I would argue that this issue negates the TSA’s claims that their screenings are conducted without regard to a person’s sex and gender identity, because the fact that there is a need for buttons and only two of them, put in based on the observations of a person who may or may not have any idea of what they are looking at does indeed create a “separate but equal” system of discrimination against those who do not fit the standard of either category, whether they identify as trans or not. It is not unlikely that a cisgender man with gynecomastia might raise the same “alarm” as a transman or non-binary person with breasts.

The TSA needs to keep working on this issue, because changing the wording in this case is the exact opposite of a solution. I would not be surprised to see a landmark court case on this subject in the near future.


Chan, Melissa. “TSA Can Now Force Passengers To Go Through Body Scanners” Time, December 22, 2015. Accessed December 25, 2015.

Marsh, Rene. “TSA changes rules for who must go through body scanner.” CNN, December 23, 2015. Accessed December 25, 2015.
Transportation Security Administration. “Transgender Passengers.” Accessed December 25, 2015.

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