Flying While Trans: Kristin Beck Wants You To Be A TSA Ambassador

"This would help the handicapped, the elderly, people who are hearing-impaired or visually impaired. Anyone that might have an issue."

It’s been a year since Shadi Petosky, a transgender woman, fired off a series of emotional tweets about being mistreated and detained by agents of the Transportation Security Administration at Orlando International Airport.

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The incident trained a spotlight on the plight of trans travelers in the post-9/11 world of heightened security. But 12 months later, the problem persists.

In fact, just this week, the TSA made a public apology to another trans woman, Kristin Beck, for a humiliating encounter at Reagan National Airport.

Beck, a former Navy SEAL who recently ran for Congress, says she was misgendered by agents, who called her breasts an “anomaly”—a phrase the TSA promised it would no longer use when screening trans people.

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She doesn’t think her physical build was why a male agent sized her up and pressed a blue button on the full body scanner, setting the machine to read her as male.

“I have no idea,” she says. “I’m not very tall, I’m 5’10 and barefoot going into the machine… I do everything just as any other female would. I try to dress comfortably because it’s a flight. I have makeup on. I have a blouse and jeans and comfortable shoes.”

But that blue button set in motion a series of mishaps.

A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent looks at the monitor of an advanced imaging technology machine during a demonstration of the machines' new software at Reagan National Airport in Washington,DC. The new software eliminates passenger specific images using a generic outline of a person. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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“They call me ‘him’ and ask if TSA Dude can pat me down?” Beck posted on Facebook about the encounter. “I say I’m ‘her’ and I don’t want ‘dude’ groping my boobs.”

“Yes, They are ‘real’ boobs,” she added, “And, by the way, the state of Maryland says I’m female.”

Having seen the TSA screen with two “blocks” appearing where her breasts are, Beck believes the underwire in her bra set off the scanner off after the agent marked her as male.

But when she corrected the agents, none of them—not even a supervisor—offered anything in the way of an “I’m sorry.”

In fact, she only found out about the apology the TSA posted on its website by reading about it in the news.

A passenger (L) is patted down by a Transportation Security Administration(TSA) agent (L) May 2, 2011 at Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Florida. Security in airports and train stations has been increased in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden.    AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty

Although the majority of trans travelers do not set off any alarms, Beck and Petosky are hardly alone.

New York realtor Sarah Katherine Renzetti tells NewNowNext she was traveling from JFK to Boston on Memorial Day when agents repeatedly called her “sir,” and used “anomaly” to describe her chest and legs.

“I am still shaken up,” she said. “Only when I told them I would report all of them to the [media] did these morons finally let me through.”

Beck says agents need to remember that women come in all shapes and sizes. But rather than just cry foul, she’s turning her negative experience into a positive: She has pitched to the agency the idea of training “TSA ambassadors,” whose critique of agents’ performance could earn them a reward or send them back for retraining.

A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent (R) keeps watch as a  woman raises her arms while being scanned in an advanced imaging technology machine during a demonstration of the machines' new software at Reagan National Airport, Washington,DC. The new software eliminates passenger specific images using a generic outline of a person. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

“You’d be able to give a grade—like a one through five,” she tells NewNowNexts. “If you get a three, it means you followed all procedures and you’re fine… If you get a five, you might get a bonus in your check at the end of the month. But if you get a two, you’re going to need some training, possibly. And if you get a one, you might possibly get fired.”

Ambassadors would note their airport, the time and date of the encounter, and the agent’s name, then send their grades to the TSA after their flight. But it wouldn’t be limited to transgender travelers.

“This would help the handicapped, the elderly, people who are hearing-impaired or visually impaired,” she explains. “Anyone that might have an issue. There are a lot of people different from you and me. It’s race, it’s gender, it’s religion.”

Airport security officer directing passengers through security checkpoint
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A spokesman for the TSA conceded that Beck’s experience “does not reflect TSA’s values or our screening policies,” and said the agency is developing new measures aimed at addressing how agents interact with trans people.

On Monday, Beck had a 40-minute meeting with Huban Gowadia, the agency’s Deputy Administrator.

“She apologized in person and told me, ‘this is not the norm,” Beck shared, adding that Gowadia “loved” the idea of TSA Ambassadors. “They’re going to make it happen. She said, ‘We’re going to fix this.’”

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Beck is ecstatic. “This is a direct result of my [experience]—but it’s not about me, it was never about me. If my humiliation can help others, it was worth it.”

Gowadia also invited Beck to participate in training TSA agents and to assist in the production of a new sensitivity training video that is supposed to be ready in time for the busy Thanksgiving travel season.

Beck says, in her mind, the ambassador program has already launched—even if it’s just ad hoc with people she knows or who follow her on social media.

Gowadia has even offered to be the contact person while the agency consults with personnel and the TSA union about how to implement the program.

“Send them to me.”

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TREVOR COLLENS/AFP/Getty

For more information about your rights when you fly, visit these sites.

TSA’s Transgender Passengers Page and Complaint Form

The National Center for Transgender Equality’s Airport Security Page

Lambda Legal’s Statement on TSA Body Scanners

Award-winning writer, producer and public speaker Dawn Ennis was the first out trans journalist in TV network news. A widow raising three children, she is the subject of the documentary Before Dawn/After Don. You can find her on YouTube, on Twitter and blogging at lifeafterdawn.com.