Travelling while trans: gender issues at airport security

Adele Berti 15 January 2019 (Last Updated January 30th, 2020 08:14)

The issue of treating transgender travellers with dignity at airport security has reared its head several times in the last few years, amid a series of humiliating or distressing experiences of transgender passengers who felt they were harassed or misgendered by security staff. What training and management need to take place to ensure all passengers are treated fairly?

Travelling while trans: gender issues at airport security
Numerous equality groups are joining efforts around the world to protect the rights of gender non-conforming travellers.

In October this year, London’s Luton Airport faced public backlash after a transgender woman took to Twitter to share her experience.

The passenger was reportedly misgendered multiple times and faced a series of humiliating and distressing experiences.

While Luton Airport apologised for the accident and announced plans to work with the local LGBT communities to better address similar situations in the future, the episode is only one of a long string to take place in the past few years.

Similar cases of harassment or mistreatment by airport security at the expense of trans people regularly appear in the news and rights campaigners argue they add up to a problem that requires urgent action.

Although policies and standards on how to treat LGBTI people at airport security vary from country to country, numerous equality groups are joining efforts around the world to protect the rights of gender non-conforming travellers.

The importance of cultural backgrounds

Trans and gender non-conforming passengers face a number of challenges when they travel, especially when reaching airport security.

According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) – an organisation which brings together over 1,300 LGBTI groups around the world – two main issues arise at airport security checks.

“One is a societal, cultural perception issue and the other one has to do with legal identity documents,” says Zhan Chiam, coordinator of ILGA’s Gender Identity and Gender Expression Programme.

“If you are in a country where trans people and LGBTI are treated badly, then one would expect they will receive similar treatment at airports.”

The former has to do with the gender a person identifies themselves as, but also how they present themselves at airport security – meaning, for example, that someone who is non-binary may present as gender-ambiguous. Chiam explains that under international law, it should not be a requirement for someone to identify with or be recognised by their gender identity. “However, when someone presents in a gender that people don’t recognise as belonging to the binary female or male, [at security] that can lead to a series of questions and interrogations.”

Chiam adds that cultural backgrounds also affect the way security checks are carried and the staff’s level of acceptance towards gender non-conforming passengers, who have higher chances of being mistreated by staff in countries that have low tolerance towards the LGBTI community: “If you are in a country where trans people and LGBTI are treated badly, then one would expect they will receive similar treatment at airports, where the problems will be higher because of the power imbalance in this situation.”

Showing passports at security

The second major issue regards personal identification documents. According to Bex Stinson, head of Trans Inclusion at UK-based LGBTI rights group Stonewall, this is due to the fact that on many occasions, the gender reported in a person’s official document is different from the gender the passenger identifies with.

“We have had cases where trans people were pulled off into a room and strip-searched.”

“Trans people often face difficult and distressing situations when travelling abroad,” she says. “A lack of awareness of different trans identities and the way gender is recorded on official documents can mean trans people face intrusive questioning and are treated with greater suspicion at airport security. This can make travelling a very stressful experience, and may prevent some trans people from travelling abroad altogether.”

Chiam adds that while a few countries in the world allow for the gender marker to be changed freely on passports, most trans people will have to travel with documents “that are going to oust them as being trans at some stage of the process”.

Further problems and delays may be triggered when passengers go through body scanners, which often show them having body parts that security guards don’t associate with the gender indicated on their travel document.

In many cases, Chiam explains, these issues end up causing havoc. “We have had cases where trans people were pulled off into a room and strip-searched to prove their gender based on what the security officials think is criteria for one gender or another. Some have also been detained and searched just on the basis that their gender presentation doesn’t conform to the traditional male-female notions or their gender marker presents differently to the gender that they present in.”

Collaborating with the LGBTI community

In the US, the Transportation Security Administration allows passengers to request a private screening or to receive a private pat-down as an alternative to the screening. The UK Department for Transport is responsible for security checks at UK airports. The LGBTI community is also protected by the Equality Act 2010 – and the Equal Treatment Directives in the EU – thanks to which service providers are legally required to ensure all LGBT travellers are treated fairly and don’t face discrimination.

However, both Stinson and Chiam agree that more should be done to raise awareness and properly train staff to treat all passengers equally and fairly.

“It’s really important airport staff understand that some trans people may not have documentation that matches their gender identity,” Stinson argues, “and they may be more nervous than other passengers about going through security or being searched.”

“It’s really important airport staff understand that some trans people may not have documentation that matches their gender identity.”

In 2017, Stonewall even called for the creation of a gender-neutral X option – an alternative to the traditional M and F – for UK passports as part of its five-year plan to ensure equality for transgender people.

Further proposals to include the X option on passports were recently put forward by Christie Elan-Cane as part of a wider campaign for the legal and social recognition of non-gendered identity. Although this option has already been adopted in several countries around the world such as India, Canada and New Zealand, in the UK this is still pending appeal in legal proceedings.

“There is a chance that the government’s discriminatory policy will be found unlawful,” Elan-Cane says. “Most opposition parties have expressed support for the issuance of X passports, therefore the current passport policy could soon change with a change of government.”

Meanwhile, Stonewall stresses the importance of training airport personnel appropriately.

As Stinson puts it: “Making sure airport staff receives diversity and inclusion training is an important step toward creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for trans passengers. All LGBTI people should be able to go about their daily lives feeling safe and free from discrimination.”

Echoing her words, Chiam says airports need to make sure that the companies they employ for security checks meet and conform to the national standards, as well as include LGBTI groups for consulting. “In any training modules,” he continues, “the community needs to be involved in the design and implementation. The community should definitely be involved because the community has the experience, knows what has gone wrong in the past, so they will represent a concrete example for the future.”