Shadi Petosky was detained by TSA for traveling while trans: "The police at the TSA gate were awful. One was laughing at me"

Salon talks to the TV producer about her live-tweeted ordeal at the airport that started with "an anomaly"

Published September 22, 2015 11:28PM (EDT)

On the heels of "Transparent" breaking ground by winning two Emmys, it’s clear that creator Jill Soloway’s statement, “We don’t have a trans tipping point yet. We have a trans civil rights problem,” is eminently true. Just one day after the Emmy awards, on Monday, Sept. 21, PUNY Entertainment executive producer Shadi Petosky (who was also a writer in "Transparent's" Writing Workshop) had just finished celebrating her birthday with her mother in Orlando, Florida, when her trip home to Minneapolis took a troubling turn. As she went through airport security, the transgender television writer was stopped by a Transportation Security Administration agent, who, according to Petosky, called her penis “an anomaly,” and pulled her out of the security line for additional screening.

She faced even more confusion after getting through security, missing her original American Airlines flight and a subsequent one after American stalled on issuing her a boarding pass and even called the police to try to get her escorted out of the airport. Petosky live-tweeted the entire ordeal, which caused her to miss her flight and spend the night in Miami (her original flight route would have had her home Monday evening).

This is not an isolated incident; on Twitter, transgender people are sharing similar stories using the hashtag #TravelingWhileTrans. Earlier this year, the National Center for Transgender Equality jointed a lawsuit against the TSA over its use of body scanners. Petosky spoke with Salon from Miami about her airport ordeal and what she’d like to see from the TSA and airlines to provide fair and equal service for transgender passengers.

How often do you usually fly and is this a route you’ve flown before?

I fly probably eight or nine times a year. And no, I’ve never flown to Orlando before or used American Airlines. I usually just fly Minneapolis to L.A. or New York.

So yesterday, when did you first realize there was going to be a problem as you were going through security?

I went through the full body scanner and when I turned back to look at the image that was on the screen, I saw that it had a dot over my groin. 

And then what happened?

Then I told the TSA agent that I was transgender and had a penis.

What did they say?

He started to act a little confused but he then asked me if I was a man, and said he should have scanned me as a man then. I said no, I’m not a man, I’m transgender and I have a penis. He needed to either push the man or woman button. 

So then after you said that, what happened?

He kept doing that, and I said, “Is there anyone else I can talk to because I don’t think that you understand transgender issues. Do have any transgender training?” He said, “I know what I’m doing.”

How did you feel while you were having that conversation?

It was completely awful and in front of other passengers. I’d never had an X-ray scan my body and cause my genitals to be a problem before. They just kept calling it "an anomaly" and that felt like a really weird word at that time. 

Did they seem like they were trying to help you?

They wanted to get me through as fast as possible. They wanted me to shut up and then get patted down in the groin, but they couldn’t decide if they wanted a male or female TSA agent to do the pat down. 

Did they ask you your preference?

No, they just kept asking me if I was a man or a woman. To be honest, even now, it's tricky when you don't know what they're going to do. I don’t want to make a female TSA officer touch my penis and I don’t want male TSA officers to touch anywhere else.

So you’ve had to do the pat-down before and it’s never been a problem?

I’ve been patted down many times in different areas. It's usually no big deal.

How did it progress? I know you wound up going to a private room.

Next, they brought me over to a public screening area and told me that they needed to pat my groin down with the back of the hand. A female officer volunteered. When we were done with that, they swabbed my hands and said that it was triggered for explosives. That’s when they said they had to do additional screening, including the full body scan and complete baggage check. That’s when they brought me into the private room.

Then I said, “This is about my groin; this is about what you found in my groin. I need someone who’s sensitive to trans issues to talk to me about this.” Then they started having a lot of meetings and discussions with each other. Some were saying I was free to go; some were saying I wasn’t. The TSA manager told me I could leave but then they ended up bringing a bomb person over who said I could not.

What was the timing in terms of when your flight was going to be leaving?

My flight was leaving at 4:30 and I was going into that secondary scanning at 4:20, so I knew I was probably going to miss my flight at that point.

Did you say anything about that?

Yes. I told them; they didn’t care.

When you were in the private room, did they explain to you what the issue was with your hands?

They said the machine detected explosives and they had to do a full body pat-down and they had to search the bottom of my feet and check all my bags. They didn’t tell me what it was or anything, they just said I tested positive for explosives.

What were you thinking while this was happening?

I was thinking they were trying to teach me a lesson: to not talk back to that first person. Because I travel with medication and I get swabbed pretty frequently, and nothing’s ever been triggered. So it just felt like an awful coincidence. They said that if I didn’t comply with the pat-down and the additional screening, the police would remove me from the airport for trespassing. So I said I would do it. I started crying as they were touching my body; I was pretty frustrated about the whole situation and being pulled out.

What happened after is almost inconsequential; the real big issue is that transgender people are being singled out because we don’t fit in with what they might think our bodies should be.

When did you decide to live-tweet what was happening?

I was crying in the security room. They had finished the pat-down and they had left the room and left me by myself. I was afraid of what was going to happen because they had called in a bomb person and they had called in police and they were telling me not to take photos, so I wanted people to know where I was and what was happening.

Did they say anything about your tweets?

No, but I’m sure that being on the phone with advocates just escalated stuff for them. They didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know that it was getting retweeted a lot or anything at that point.

You tweeted that they were trying to take your phone away from you at some point and you insisted on keeping it. Did they try to get you to stop tweeting about it?

They told me that I could not take any photos or video. I asked if I could record; they told me I could not do that. There was a brown-suited man who came up and told one of the TSA managers to make sure that I was not taking photo or video. I’m finding out today that that might have been against regulations, that I should have been able to take photo and video. They wanted to rescan my phone and I gave it to them.

How did it eventually get resolved for you to get through the screening?

They said I tested positive for explosives again so they completely disassembled all my bags and pulled out everything, put them in individual containers and sent them through the X-ray machine. They had the bomb person look at everything, and after more discussion, they said I was free to go. 

Did anyone apologize to you or say anything kind or helpful?

Yes, one of the TSA officers apologized for the original officer’s behavior and said that they were still training new people.

Did they say anything to you about what their official policies are?

No. It doesn’t seem like they have policies, and they certainly weren’t sharing that with me. They just kept saying, “We’re not going to treat you differently than anybody else. You have an anomaly, so we have to go through these screenings.”

Based on what happened to you yesterday, do you have suggestions for how the TSA can go about dealing with transgender people who are flying in a better way?

The TSA has to work with trans groups to come up with clear policies for trans and gender-nonconforming people. Having a TSA agent look at somebody and then press a pink or blue button to determine their sex doesn’t seem like a very advanced or good system. They have to work on that. There’s no reason that if I walk through and they guess and press the pink button, that makes me liable for not being the type of body they’re expecting. 

In all your prior travels, has anything come close to being like this?

Not at all. I really thought the TSA had good policies in place because I go through that scanner frequently. I’ve been patted down in other areas and I’ve been swabbed many times before, but nothing like this. And certainly nothing where they’re asking me if I’m a man or a woman. Those are questions they don’t need to ask in front of everyone.

And after you got through and missed your flight, there’ve been various accounts of how you were treated by American Airlines. Can you talk about what happened when you got through security?

The TSA agent told me that I needed to rebook my flight at the gate and if I went back out of security I would have to go through and be flagged and go through the process again. I went to the American Airlines gate and nobody was working, and there weren’t any other American Airlines gates inside the airport. As I was looking around for them, I got on a tram that took me to a zone where I had to leave. I went back to the American Airlines front counter.

The front counter people told me that there were only standby flights available. So I asked if there were any first class tickets available and what that price would be. They told me there were first class tickets available and it would be $1,000. I was getting calls by then from the news and they said they were talking to American Airlines corporate, so I just stopped dealing with the counter and went to charge my phone.

So American Airlines corporate was tweeting that I was booked and ready to go, but I didn’t know anything about that. No one from American Airlines called me or told me that I had a boarding pass. Then things really went downhill from there, because when I went back to try to get what they were tweeting me to coordinate with the counter, they could not coordinate at all.

One of the American Airlines managers came over and told me that if I didn’t want TSA problems, I should opt for a private screening, which is basically telling transgender people that they have to go through a separate process. I asked her not to lecture me about how to fly while trans; I asked her to just get me a boarding pass.

Finally, the person I was dealing with went on break or something, and I asked another clerk if she could help me. She said she saw the first clerk give me a boarding pass. I said that wasn’t true, that I didn’t have one and I just wanted one. She said she absolutely saw her colleague hand it to me. That’s where things got bizarre.

I said, “Can I record you saying this right now? This is so weird that you’re telling me I have a boarding pass and I don’t.” When I said that I was going to record her, she jumped on the phone and called the police. The Orlando police came and the manager of American Airlines asked them to escort me out of the building. They asked me what I wanted; I said I just wanted my boarding pass. They made American Airlines give me a boarding pass.

Did American Airlines say why they wanted you escorted out of the building?

They wanted me escorted out of the building because I threatened to record their employee when she was insisting that they had already given me a boarding pass, but they hadn’t. I wanted to record her saying that to help get my pass.

So when did the flight that you wound up on finally take off?

I’m still traveling. I was on a 9:50 flight to Miami and then I got a hotel in Miami now. So I’m in a hotel in Miami now. They’re saying there’s a flight to Minneapolis tonight.

 How much more has it cost you than the original price?

They charged me for a first class ticket. I got a refund for that, so now I’m just out for a $100 hotel room—and stress and a night’s sleep and time I should be working. 

How do you think American Airlines could’ve better handled your situation?

They need to be more accommodating to transgender people or anybody who is detained by the TSA and misses their flight. They’re calling it a TSA issue but they’re putting the onus on the passengers to not get held up by the TSA. All I’m asking for American Airlines to do is put a policy in place that if a transgender person comes up to them and says the TSA held them for too long and they missed their flight, that they accommodate them on the next flight without additional charges and hassle. 

What do you think of the discrepancy between what American Airlines was tweeting and their behavior toward you at gate?

I think it’s just a large corporation with a lot of moving parts. I asked the people at the gate to call corporate and they said they wouldn’t do that, that it’s completely separate. I asked to show them what was happening on Twitter and they said they didn’t want to see it. They should have just talked to each other. So whoever was tweeting for American Airlines saw in the system that I was issued a boarding pass, but they didn’t realize I didn’t have it and I wasn’t given it. I was being told I was given it, even though I didn’t have it. Even if they thought they had given it to me and I said I didn’t have it, they could have easily printed another one, but they wouldn’t.

Have they reached out to you since then?

No. They just issued a statement to the press saying I was immediately re-boarded and there were no other issues, even though I have photos of the police at their counter. It was insane.

How did the police treat you?

The police at the TSA gate were awful. One was laughing at me.

And at the American Airlines gate?

The police officer at the American Airlines gate was wonderful. He helped me get the ticket. He told American Airlines to give me a boarding pass. They called the police on me to have me escorted out but he barely had to hear my story and ended up telling them to give me a boarding pass.

By contrast, you’re saying the police when you were being held by the TSA…

They asked me what my sex was and the TSA had to interrupt them and tell them that wasn’t an issue. They acted like I was a huge annoyance, and when I was crying they told me to get myself together.

There’s been an outpouring of stories on Twitter with the #TravelingWhileTrans hashtag. What positive outcome would you like to see happen as a result of you telling your story?

Because of the media attention, so many of my trans friends are sharing that they’ve had similar experiences. So the TSA really needs to take this seriously. There’s a current lawsuit against them; they should know that this is an issue. Just the fact that so many trans people have this issue means they really need to take action and address it or else they’re just going to keep knowingly denigrating trans passengers.

Yesterday you tweeted “I don’t want my #1 Google results to be about genitals or a pic of me crying.” What else would you like people to know about you besides this story?

I work really hard to get TV pilots. I just want to be known more as a writer and an artist than as a victim. It’s frustrating to have your trans status become the most important thing about you.

Do you consider yourself an activist?

I don’t consider myself an activist, but I think that every trans person kind of gets shoved into advocating for themselves in housing and medical and situations like this, even around bathrooms. The political is personal. We’re all forced to advocate for our own selves constantly. I work in television; I’m not an activist, but I have to advocate against these systems that are set up to treat trans people this way. 

Are you glad that you tweeted about all of it while it was happening?

I don’t know. I’ll be glad if there’s positive change. Am I glad about it right now? No. It’s really disruptive. There’s a picture of me crying all over the Internet. I’m not glad about that at all. But if something good happens out of it, then I can live with that.

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

MORE FROM Rachel Kramer Bussel

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Airport Security American Airlines Anti-transgender Discrimination Shadi Petosky Trans Rights Tsa