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A Woman Says She Was Harassed by the TSA for 'Flying While Trans'

Shadi Petosky's tweets about missing her flight thanks to hostile airport security officers have gone viral, but the TSA insists it's done nothing wrong.
September 23, 2015, 11:26am

The body scanners commonly used now by the TSA produce a cartoon-like avatar of passengers. In this 2011 image the pink and blue buttons for "male" and "female" are visible. Image via Wikipedia.

Shadi Petosky flies often and without incident. So when the writer and producer snaked through the security line at the Orlando airport yesterday, the only thoughts in her head were about the birthday she'd just celebrated with her mom at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But after a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent pulled her aside due to an "anomaly" the 41-year-old's vacation turned into a denigrating nightmare.

According to an account Petosky posted to Twitter, the anomaly in question was her penis. After a 40-minute ordeal that included being held in a room, being asked to declare her sex, and being given two full pat-downs, she missed her flight.

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"I fly all the time and this has never happened," Petosky tweeted. "I really thought the TSA was good about trans issues. I am so dumb."

This isn't the first time the TSA has been accused of mistreating trans passengers. In fact, Petosky says it's happened to most if not all of her friends. On Twitter, she started to hashtag #FlyingWhileTrans, which elicited responses from people who reported similar treatment. According to a 2011 survey (pdf) from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, 21 percent of trans people reported being discriminated against while flying.

@TSA I was flagged for a "groin anomaly" at MHT. Agents had no idea what to do. One called me a "trailblazer." Training…? #FlyingWhileTrans
— Annika Backstrom (@abackstrom) September 22, 2015

#flyingwhiletrans is the fucking worst. I once had a security officer look at my passport, look at me, and laugh. He straight up laughed.
— naomi gordon-loebl (@naomigloebl) September 22, 2015

According to Petosky, when a passenger enters a full-body scanner, a TSA agent is supposed to push either a pink or blue button depending on what gender the passenger presents as. When the Petosky's genitals did not match with her gender presentation, it created a problem. An agent supposedly told her to "get back in the machine as a man, or there was going to be a problem," Petosky tweeted.

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The TSA did not respond to VICE's request for comment, but the agency told the New York Times that "after examining closed-circuit TV video and other available information, TSA has determined that the evidence shows our officers followed TSA's strict guidelines."

Airport body scanners have been part of a legal battle that's been going on since 2007, sparked by civil rights groups that allege the system is an invasion of privacy. In 2011, a court ruled that the TSA needed to develop formal rules for the scanners, but that never happened. In July, three groups, including the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), filed a petition saying the agency needed to speed things up. The government filed a response just this week, saying they need more time, according to court records.

"This incident [with Petosky] provides yet another disturbing illustration that something is wrong with airport security," NCTE Director of Policy Harper Jean Tobin said in a statement to VICE. "For years TSA relied on body scanners and prison-style pat-downs as its primary tools despite mounting evidence that they don't work. It's a waste of billions and unfair to all travelers, but anyone who looks different or whose body is different is harmed the most."

While the NCTE might be using Petosky as an example to prove their point, she claims that she didn't want to be the subject of a media firestorm when she started talking about her experience on social media. The tweets were merely a way of publicly documenting her mistreatment, she says.

"I'm not going to lie," Petosky tweeted after her account went viral. "I zero percent want to be googled as the transsexual who's junk got flagged in Orlando."

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