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“My body is not a threat!” – How airport security procedures affect transgender travellers and their mental health

Written by: Krieger, Ricarda

University: Lincoln

Abstract: While airport security procedures are meant to secure the safety of all travellers, they can have the opposite effect on certain groups within society. Security scans and screenings which are focused on the heavy scrutiny of the passenger’s body often trigger anxiety and fear among transgender travellers, whose gender expression might differ from their anatomical sex. As transgender travellers are confronted with harassment on a daily basis, being outed publicly at an airport might not only result in shaming by others but in some cases even to assault and sexual harassment.

Keywords: Inclusive Tourism, Transgender, Mental Health, Airport Security

The letter “T” in LGBTQ stands for transgender. “Transgender” is an umbrella term referring to individual’s whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned with at birth. While some people decide to transition to the gender they identify as with the help of hormonal or surgical mediation, others prefer to express their gender identify solely through their choice of clothing, preferred pronouns and name use. Some transgender individuals simply self-identify as a gender other than they were designated at birth and neither plan nor want to transition physically. A transgender identity does not need to be linked to hormonal therapy, medical procedures or physical appearance to be valid. Transgender individuals often face discrimination, transphobia and hate crimes on a day-to-day basis, even within the LGBT community. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that studies have shown transgender people are three times as likely to suffer from anxiety disorder and almost eight times as likely to attempt suicide compared to the average American citizen.

While going on holidays is generally associated with leisure, relaxation and the opportunity to re-charge, this does not apply to everyone. In a post 9/11 world, the harassment and discrimination by airport security staff against travellers of Middle Eastern or South Asian decent has been widely reported in academic and other contemporary literature. Given the increased focus and importance of accessible and inclusive tourism, it comes to a surprise that the struggles of transgender travellers and the effects this has on their overall well-being have not been recognised or documented well in the field off tourism. Even though accessible and inclusive tourism are often associated with enabling a physically barrier-free environment, it also applies to breaking down socially constructed barriers. Abey (2009) stresses the importance of inclusive and accessible tourism by comparing the restriction of mobility as an immediate restriction of one’s human rights.

The main struggle transgender people face at airports, besides passport control, are body scans. Post 9/11 greater pre-passenger screening was developed and introduced as a world-wide standard to ensure safety. Some body scans used in UK airports and all body scans installed in US airports require to be programmed to the sex of the individual that is being scanned. These scanners are programmed to compare the body scanned to what a standard female and a male body are shaped like, in order to detect anomalies and discrepancies.

This procedure has been heavily criticised since its introduction due to the idea to use body information in order to identity one person from the next, as it enforce ideas of what a female and male body are meant to look like. Even worse, it suggests that whoever does not fit those standard ideas is automatically flagged as a potential risk or threat. Transgender travellers who are in the process of transitioning or simply express their gender identity through their clothing are often nervous about said scans, with an average 43 percent of them reporting negative experiences with airport security in the past year (Wu, 2017).

Once an alarm has been issued, potentially because of transgender person passing visually as the gender they self-identify as, the security personnel is required to follow up and clear said alarm. This often results in full body-pat downs where transgender travellers are criminalised because of their gender identity. This would trigger the stress levels of any passenger, let alone someone that is possible more vulnerable to stigmatisation and has pre-existing mental health conditions. Even though specific laws surrounding body scans and pat-down have been established to ensure the security of trans travellers these are at times not executed, putting transgender people in vulnerable and exploitable positions. On social media, accounts of public outing, shaming and even sexual harassment have been reported.

It conclusion it can be noted that transgender travellers are at a higher risk of experiencing negative treatment, harassment and discrimination when engaging with airport security procedures solely based on the programming of these technologies, their gender identity and the security personnel’s mind-set. Exposing members of such a vulnerable community to these struggles and the stress and anxiety attached to them can resolve in irreparable but damage. As the tourism industry aims to be more accessible and inclusive in today’s society the equal treatment off transgender travellers and others by offering them opportunities to enjoy their holiday experience as a whole can be a great start to said inclusiveness and accessibility.

Adey, P. (2009) Facing airport security: affect, biopolitics and the preemptive securisation of the mobile body. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 27 273-295. Available from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1068/d0208 [accessed 6 May 2018].

Wu, J. (2017) How to Migate the Stress of Flying while Trans. National Center of Transgeder Equality. 25 December. Available from https://medium.com/transequalitynow/how-to-mitigate-the-stress-of-flying-while-trans-7b63b36da669 [accessed May 9 2018].