July 06, 2016

After a series of high-profile incidents between Transportation Security Agency (TSA) agents and transgender travelers in mid-2015, LGBT rights organizations and travelers report that security processing during domestic travel has become less fraught. However, the way security personnel at airports outside the US treat transgender individuals is inconsistent, leading to situations where transgender international travelers still face insensitivity and confusion, such incidents can be emotionally difficult and disruptive to travel.

Below we outline the major issues transgender travelers reported during domestic travel and offer some suggestions about how transgender international travelers may be able to anticipate and avoid some of the problems.

In 2007, the introduction of body scanners led to increased problems between transgender travelers and security screeners. Body scanners, particularly the now-defunct ‘backscatter’ scanners, rely on a gendered “normal” as a baseline to identify anomalies. With the body scanners, TSA agents looked at a traveler’s gender presentation, assumed a matching physical sex, and told the machine to interpret the traveler as male or female. Within months, transgender travelers began reporting awkward, embarrassing, and upsetting confrontations with TSA personnel after scanners identified prosthesis, padding, body binders and other body adjustments as physical anomalies.

TSA agents were generally untrained or under-trained to deal sensitively with gender-related issues. Transgender travelers reported agents insisting the traveler be identified as their pre-transition gender. For example, at Las Vegas’s McCarran Airport in 2012, a traveler was searched by a TSA officer of the opposite gender; similar incidents were reported at Los Angeles International Airport. A series of intelligence reports suggesting that terrorists planned to disguise themselves as women added suspicion to the discord, and by 2012, nearly 30 percent of transgender travelers reported that they had experienced discrimination, harassment, or assault, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender


After complaints peaked in 2011-2012, the TSA initiated a broad reform of the Agency’s sensitivity policies towards the LGBT community, including publishing an updated webpage with advice for transgender travelers. LGBT rights groups, TSA spokesmen, and travelers have all reported a decrease in the number of incidents, and bloggers on LGBT issues have informally applauded the agency’s turn-around.

However, while domestic travel may have improved, international travel remains a challenge. Security protocols, screener training, and sensitivity to LGBT issues varies widely between countries. In some airports, cross-cultural miscommunications and misunderstanding on gender diversity add to issues during security searches. Additionally, travelers report complications stemming from disparities between gender presentation in person and on official identification paperwork.

Body scanner usage is inconsistent internationally. Scanners are most common in developed countries, and are widely used in Europe. Some airports in Asia use them, including the major international airports in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Manila. Scanners are less common in non-Western countries and are only sporadically used in Africa. Travelers may encounter them, for example in the major Nigerian and Kenyan airports. In some reported incidents, the country’s legal code and social stigmas are stridently anti-LGBT, with rigid legal gender interpretation. However, while a few transgender international travelers have been harassed and subjected to invasive searches, there are no reports that Western travelers have been arrested or subject to official action.

The second, and more common, concern for transgender international travelers report is using a passport where their gender presentation does not match the in-person presentation. The TSA guidelines only require that identifying paperwork matches the gender chosen on the flight manifesto. The State Department rolled out a policy in June, 2010, that allows for transgender individuals to streamline the application for a new passport in concert with a transition. However, in gradual transitions, travelers with notable disparities between appearance and paperwork may open themselves up to additional scrutiny.

When traveling abroad transgender individuals should assess their personal situation, and the tolerance of gender diversity in their destination. Travelers who are concerned with drawing attention to their transition may be able to take a few extra steps to ensure that their interactions with airport security occur without major incident.

  • Travelers should ensure that official paperwork – visas and passports -- match each other and match the traveler’s presentation.
  • Travelers may want to carry letters from doctors in English and in the local language as insurance.
  • Travelers will want to alert the local US embassy or consulate if they encounter harassment.
  • Finally, travelers should anticipate that body scanners may lead to security flagging, and be prepared to respond to cross-cultural confusion, which may manifest as rude or callous behavior.

Transgender individuals concerned with undertaking international travel can also seek out LGBT rights groups, which are able to provide counseling and advice.