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A trans teen who was allegedly subjected to an illegal airport strip-search is taking her case to federal court.
An 11-page complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina on Monday alleges that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and an anonymous employee violated Jamii Erway’s constitutional rights and intentionally inflicted emotional distress. In addition to seeking unspecified damages, the plaintiff is requesting a court order forcing TSA to enforce its own policies against strip searches.
“The mere threat of forcing one to submit to a strip search and manual manipulation
of one’s genitals… is sufficient to cause severe emotional distress in ordinary people,” the complaint reads.
Erway claims in the suit that she was 15 years old when she was stopped while going through airport security at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport in 2019. The body allegedly scanner detected an “anomaly” on her groin, a common scenario for trans and gender-nonconforming people. Body scanners are programmed to profile passengers as “male” or “female” and to search for information that deviates from that assessment of their bodies, according to a 2019 investigation from ProPublica.
Although Erway informed airport security that she is trans, the operator allegedly declined to re-scan her and called over a supervisor, a defendant named in the suit as Jane Doe. According to the lawsuit, Doe told Erway that she would need to take her to a private room in order to “feel up in there.” When Erway protested, Doe said she would not be allowed to leave the checkpoint until she complied with the request.
The lawsuit claims that the TSA employee instructed Erway’s mother, Kimberly, to force her child to comply with the strip-search, which she refused to do. The Erways were ultimately forced to rent a car and drive over 600 miles to return home.
The treatment that Erway claims to have experienced does not conform to TSA’s own policies on handling anomalies, according to the complaint. The TSA procedure in cases where passenger’s bodies do not conform to stereotypical definitions of gender calls for a brief pat-down search. It explicitly prohibits strip-searches and direct contact with travelers’ genitalia.
Erway’s attorney, Jonathan Corbett, further emphasized in an interview with Raleigh-based newspaper The News and Observer that the TSA contravened its own guidelines in violating his client’s rights. He said that agents are not allowed to “demand a child — or anyone else — to expose their genitals.”
“This appears to be a failure of training and supervision, and we have no indication that they have improved since the incident,” he said
While it’s unclear if the TSA has worked to improve its treatment of transgender customers since the incident, research shows that mistreatment of trans travelers has been a rampant issue for the government agency. Around 5% of civil rights complaints against TSA from January 2016 to April 2019 were related to screenings of transgender people, according to ProPublica. That figure does not include instances in which a formal complaint was not filed.
Even an undercount remains extremely disproportionate to the size of the trans population overall. Although estimates vary, a survey conducted by Gallup in February found that just .6% of American adults identify as transgender.
Trans people and their allies have been calling for a rehaul of the often invasive TSA screening system for years. In 2020, House Representative Kathleen Rice (D-Nassau County) introduced the Screening with Dignity Act, which is intended to make flying easier for trans people. A rehaul of a 2018 bill, the legislation directs TSA to develop protocols to make screenings safer and smoother for both trans people and people with religious headwear. It has yet to pass.
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Published:Aug 26, 2021 at 12:00 PM