by: Aaron Capener
It’s finally here! Tickets are purchased, clothes are packed, alarms are set and you’re ready to go! But wait… What do you do about your packer??
Deep breath. We’ve got your back. In this article, we attempt to demystify the airport security experience and provide tips for making it through.
Metal Detectors vs. Body Scanners vs. Pat Downs
Airport security can be an incredibly stressful space for trans folks. From humiliating questions to uncomfortable pat-downs, the TSA can do more than take the fun out traveling. For those among us who are also immigrants or of Arab descent, a hiccup in the security line can have devastating consequences. And while advocacy groups and activist continue to push for trans-sensitive policy, we've still got a long way go.
Here is a general rundown of what you can expect when facing metal detectors, Body Scanners, and Pat Downs as it relates to packing.
Because these gadgets are only checking for metal on the individual, unless you’re packing with a DIY packer of nuts and bolts, you shouldn't have anything to worry about. The metal detector will not pick up on the silicone packer in your pants. However, metal detectors are being phased out in airports throughout the world, so unless you are in an older, smaller airport, or if you register for TSA PreCheck, you will most likely be subjected to a full-body scan.
Side note - If you are a frequent traveler and are able to afford PreCheck, we highly recommend registering. Not only does it generally mean quicker trips through the airport security, it generally allows you to skip the dreaded body scanners. We know this is not an option for everyone, however, so if you can't get Pre-Check, read on.
Body Scanners (Millimeter Wave Scanner)
From personal experience as well as from polling the community, we’ve found that most issues trans people face in airport security stem from these full-body scanners.
According to the TSA website regarding transgender passengers their protocol is as follows:
“When you enter the imaging portal, the TSA officer presses a button designating a gender (male/female) based on how you present yourself. The machine has software that looks at the anatomy of men and women differently. The equipment conducts a scan and indicates areas on the body warranting further inspection if necessary. If there is an alarm, TSA officers are trained to clear the alarm, not the individual. Additional screening is conducted to determine whether a prohibited item is present.”
In short, the TSA agent presses a "male" or "female" button based on how they believe you look. The machine will then flag you if it thinks your body doesn't match the TSA agent's gender selection. When flagged, an alarm is raised and a TSA agent must pat you down to make sure you’re not carrying anything that causes threat.
Of course, this process can be especially fraught for gender non-conforming folks. The technology used by the TSA is, by design, gender-binary reinforcing. The fact that there is no "correct" gender selection can be incredibly distressing to a GNC person. And how closely you are "read" matches how the machine "reads" your body will determine whether or not you are pulled aside for a pat-down.
Likewise, cis passing trans guys often report that they are flagged for not packing. There is a conspicuous lack of package where the machine believes there should be one and this lack sets off an alarm that must then be cleared.
On rarer occasions, cis passing trans guys report being flagged even though they are indeed packing. Whether this is a false positive (there are many reports that show the millimeter scanners can be unreliable) or the machine's ability to pick up on a packer as an object separate from a person's body is unclear. There are a great number of inconsistencies reported when considering packing and airport security experiences. What is clear, however, is that any time an alarm goes off, a TSA agent must "clear the alarm" by giving you a pat-down.
Knowing that you might be flagged either way - I suggest you do what makes you feel most comfortable and if you think you might get flagged, remain calm and read on to know what to expect.
If you’re planning on packing when going through airport security and are selected to receive a pat-down, I would first recommend deep breaths to calm the anxiety of a stranger patting your groin.
The TSA states on their site that, “If a pat-down is performed, it will be conducted by an officer of the same gender as you present yourself.” In other words, if the TSA agent reads you as male, they will assign a male TSA agent to perform your pat-down. Here is what one transmale traveler reported when he was flagged while packing,
"I recently packed through airport security for the first time and the body scanner definitely picked up on the fact that something was out of the ordinary. A TSA agent patted me down, grabbed both sides of my sweatpants near my quads and gave them a little shake. Then he nodded his approval and let me pass."
If you aren’t sure what to expect during a pat-down, you can check out this video, here, to see exactly how intrusive it will be.
The pat-down process should be the same if you are flagged while not packing, however, many transguys report distressing experiences in this case. For example, when I wasn’t packing, I was at first assigned a male agent, and he patted up my leg and froze when he realized I was missing something. He called over a female TSA agent to finish the pat-down while I gathered myself mentally and then continued my travels.
This type of public humiliation can be hugely upsetting but know that you have the right to be patted down by a TSA officer that most closely matches your gender identity. If you do not identify as male, you may calmly tell the TSA agent and request a female officer for your pat-down. Your stated identity does NOT need to match the gender designation on your documentation.
I should also note that if at any time you are uncomfortable with being pat-down in public, you have the right to request a private screening. You also have the right to bring someone else into the private screening as a witness.
No matter the case, if you are having an issue with a TSA agent for any reason, calmly explain your situation. Make sure you know your rights, but never raise your voice or threaten a TSA agent. Hopefully, with respectful communication, they will realize your identity and get the appropriate team member over to assist you.
Drop us a comment below with any more packing and airport security tips and tricks you use to avoid mishaps at the airport to help out other guys!