Jamii Erway is a 16-year-old girl in North Carolina who is used to getting false alarms when she goes through TSA body scanners. The reason is that Jamii is transgender — she was born male and now lives as a young woman — and the TSA screener operating a body scanner must press a “Male” or “Female” button for each passenger. If the operator presses “Female,” the machine will alarm if the traveler has external genitals. If the operator presses “Male,” the machine will alarm they are wearing a bra. (And, well, if you have a penis while wearing a bra, the machine will alarm no matter which button is pushed.)
I can only imagine that dealing with transitioning genders as a teenager is an extraordinarily difficult experience even without having to deal with the TSA.
TSA standard procedure for when the body scanner alarms on the “groin area” is that a quick pat-down using the back of the screener’s hands is done at the checkpoint to ensure that the traveler is not in possession of any prohibited items, as Jamii had experienced several times before. But, when triggering the scanner last May at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, a confused scanner operator called over a supervisor who decided to invent a new procedure for transgender travelers: she told Jamii she must go to a private room, expose herself, and let her “feel up in there.” That is, a TSA supervisor demanded to molest a child. When Jamii’s mother, traveling with her, attempted to intervene, the supervisor told the mother to “mind her business” before trying to recruit her to pressure Jamii into submitting to the “search.”
TSA policies prohibit checkpoint screeners (and supervisors) from conducting strip searches (even though they continue to happen at the hands of “rogue” screeners, knowing that they are unlikely to face discipline). Police and high-level TSA managers were called thanks to a mother unwilling to bend under pressure from a blue-shirted thug, and when police refused to back the search, Jamii and mother left the airport and drove 600 miles to their destination.
As best we can tell, neither the police nor TSA management took any action against the supervisor who wanted to violate Jamii — so on Monday I filed suit on behalf of Jamii in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The actions of the TSA here disgust me more than usual given that this is my first case on behalf of a child, and given the apparent discriminatory motivation. I look forward to obtaining some justice for my clients and hopefully sending a message that transgender people are not second-class citizens while flying.
Erway v. TSA – Complaint (.pdf)