TSA working to fix gender-biased technology

Published: Dec. 13, 2022 at 11:47 PM EST
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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Is airport security technology inherently gender-biased? The Transportation Security Administration admits the screening process is more challenging for transgender and nonbinary folks than cisgender travelers. Now, the TSA is spending millions to set up nonbinary screening systems.

The technology currently being used by TSA takes a very binary approach to security screenings. As a result, noncisgender individuals are likely to be brought aside for often embarrassing physical pat-downs. A local lawmaker, with firsthand experience, is calling for change.

“I went through the scanner, the alert went off that the TSA agents needed to check my groin area,” said Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, the first transgender legislator in Vermont.

Small says every time she flies out of the Burlington International Airport, she’s pulled aside for a physical pat-down. Most recently, in November as she left for D.C.

“Everyone knew, I knew exactly what was happening. The TSA agents knew what was happening at that moment and yet they felt the necessity to go through that protocol nonetheless,” Small said.

She tweeted about her experience, receiving dozens of public and private responses from people who can relate to the experience.

“It really is an uncomfortable process,” Small said. “I felt very lucky that at the time there were not a lot of folks traveling, that it wasn’t this public affair.”

Jose Bonilla, the TSA’s executive director for traveler engagement, says this isn’t a new trend.

“The way that we’ve operated the system is specifically based on blue button if the individual is perceived by the officer to be male, pink button if the individual is perceived by our officer to be female,” he said.

When asked what that means for transgender or nonbinary individuals, Bonilla says they are more likely to get flagged.

Data from the TSA shows of the 26,542 screening complaints they receive annually, just over 6% are from members of the LGBTQ+ community. In an effort to lower that number, the agency is spending $18.6 million on nonbinary screening systems. After roughly one year of testing, Bonilla is confident the sharper image technology will reduce the number of physical pat-downs happening at TSA checkpoints.

“This technology should really be gender neutral you know it really should be and we’re there,” Bonilla said.

Small says this is a good step, but it can’t come without training and education for agents.

“One TSA agent offered for us to do the scan again while the other was very adamant that they were going to do a pat-down in that moment. So, I think there are some discrepancies based on which TSA agent you are seeing,” Small said.

Dana Kaplan, the executive director of Outright Vermont, says when policies and procedures target trans or nonbinary individuals, it creates health and safety risks.

“It is that level of barrier and exclusion that leads to trans people not being able to live their lives with self-determination and joy,” he said.

Kaplan and Small both hope the improvements to technology at airports nationwide will benefit trans and nonbinary individuals, but the dialogue surrounding these types of policies needs to stay open.

“Our collective understanding of gender has shifted over time and it is the responsibility of those in power to get caught up to the reality of what life is like for people these days,” Kaplan said.

“By updating policy, what we’re doing is making these more accessible for all Vermonters. Everyone should be able to access things such as being able to fly out of their local airport,” Small said.

The new screening technology will start being rolled out to airports in January. In the meantime, those who feel their gender was assumed incorrectly can ask to be rescreened before they deem a physical pat-down absolutely necessary.