Dolores Chandler, a transgender Chapel Hill resident, prefers to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns: "they/them" rather than "he/she" or "his/her." This is a tricky request for any English-language publication, but institutions must adapt to accommodate the marginalized.
The Transportation Security Administration has also taken steps to accommodate transgender people. There's a dedicated page on the agency's website with information for transgender passengers. The TSA also provides a staff-training course called "Transgender 101," which outlines terms agents should use and avoid, information about prosthetics, and how to discreetly offer private security screenings.
But recent reports from members of the transgender community suggest that these sensitivity guidelines have yet to trickle down to agents at North Carolina airports.
On the afternoon of December 9, Chandler failed to clear the security body-scanner en route to a flight out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Two areas of Chandler's body were flagged: the crotch and the left side of the chest. Chandler consented to a pat-down by a female TSA agent.
Chandler was wearing a chest binder, a garment that some trans individuals wear to flatten their breasts. Chandler's binder was roughly the size and shape of a sports bra if it extended a few inches down the torso. It hooked on the left side—the area that had been flagged. Asked what they were wearing, Chandler told the TSA agent, "My undergarments."
"I was trying to answer her question about what I was wearing but without announcing to everybody nearby, you know, 'Hi, I'm Dolores, I'm transgender, this is what I wear,'" Chandler says.
The agent then leaned down and looked at Chandler's crotch, Chandler says, and said: "Now, what do you have going on down here?"
"It was so embarrassing I didn't even answer the question," Chandler says.
Eventually, a supervisor was called, and Chandler was led to a private room for a screening. Chandler was informed that they would not be permitted to board until the "anomaly" was cleared up. After one of the three TSA agents in the room dug her hands into Chandler's armpits and discovered nothing but skin, Chandler was at last cleared for the flight. Chandler found the nearest restroom and cried in a stall for five minutes before boarding.
Clark, a transgender blogger who asked not to be identified by last name, travels to RDU regularly to visit family. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Clark was flagged because of their chest binder and taken to a private screening room.
Unlike Chandler, Clark's experience with the agents was friendly and respectful.
"What was upsetting to me, though, was that I was told that their policy is that they had to see the binding, which is basically my underwear," Clark says. "And that, because I'm male, my torso isn't considered a sensitive area. But that's a messed-up policy for me and many other trans people."
Asked about the agency's protocol for binder searches, a TSA spokesman said the agency "does not have a specific policy." This suggests that the agents who searched Chandler and Clark are, at best, lacking direction on transgender-search procedure.
The same may be true in Charlotte, where former Triangle resident Addison Evans now lives. Evans says they were patted down six different times on a flight out of Charlotte Douglas International Airport on December 10. Evans believes their body tripped up the scanner's algorithm, which evaluates bodies based on the gender agents punch in prior to travelers being scanned.
"I have facial hair and a slightly deep voice, and I assume the TSA agent probably looked at me and punched in 'male'," Evans says. "Then I'm getting patted down and they're asking me, 'What's going on with your crotch area? Why are there anomalies?'"
Evans was taken to a private screening room, where their hands were swabbed and belongings searched. "One of the agents asked me when my flight was, and I said five o'clock," Evans says. "He said, 'Well, you should have gotten here sooner.'"
Evans says this is the second time they've been hassled at the Charlotte airport. "And I never have experiences like that on the return flight—not in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago. Only when I'm leaving Charlotte."
Agents at RDU and CLT answer to the TSA, not the airports. A TSA spokesman says that, "while there is no plan to modify existing technology, TSA is committed to continue collaboration with the transgender community."
"Flying as a trans person gives me anxiety in general, but there's extra anxiety at RDU," Clark says. "A few weeks after the incident on Thanksgiving, I flew back to Durham for Christmas. And I was dreading the return flight the entire time I was there: What if I get a bad agent? What if I get flagged and have to strip down to my underwear again? It made it hard to enjoy my time in Durham."
This article appeared in print with the headline "What's Going On with Your Crotch?"