Everyone knows that the Transportation Security Administration is a joke, but every once in a while it finds a new way to disappoint. A North Carolina mom is suing the TSA after its agents at Raleigh-Durham International Airport tried to get her transgender teen to undergo a strip search.
In 2019, Kimberly Erway reached a security checkpoint at Raleigh-Durham International Airport with her 15-year-old daughter, reports USA Today. The two were headed home to Rochester, New York. Erway’s daughter was ordered to undergo a strip search after she registered a false positive at the security checkpoint, the screener informing them that the search would involve a genital inspection.
The agency has a website for transgender travelers. It explains that passengers get screened through a metal detector or an advanced imaging technology (AIT) portal; one of those big scanners that you have to hold your hands up in. Before a traveler enters an AIT portal, the TSA agent hits a button telling the machine to look for male or female anatomy. The agent presses the button based on how you present. It’s easy to see where this goes downhill.
Erway’s lawsuit alleges that her daughter frequently has to deal with these false positives when she flies. Worse, it says that getting false positives from body scanners is common:
“False-positives on body scanners are a common occurrence; upon information and belief, at least 20% of TSA body scans indicate an anomaly even though the traveler is not secreting any items on their person,”
A report published by ProPublica found that AIT scanners are more likely to give false positives to travelers that are overweight or have a hairstyle commonly worn by Black people. Another ProPublica report found that simply sweating could trigger a false positive.
Erway’s daughter informed the scanner operator that she is transgender and asked for a re-scan using the other gender option. The agent declined and instead got a supervisor, who demanded the strip search. The strip search demand defies the TSA’s own policies, which, ironically, are plainly laid out on the aforementioned page about transgender passengers:
If you cannot or choose not to be screened by advanced imaging technology or a walk-through metal detector, you will undergo a pat-down procedure instead. You may also undergo a pat-down procedure if you alarm the screening equipment and/or at random. If a pat-down is performed, it will be conducted by an officer of the same gender as you present yourself. Screening can be conducted in a private screening area with a witness or companion of the traveler’s choosing. Please see additional guidance for prostheses.
You will not be asked to remove or lift any article of clothing to reveal sensitive body areas.
Erway’s daughter declined the strip search and the TSA supervisor called in a police officer. The suit alleges that she wasn’t allowed to leave until she consented to the strip search. Thankfully, the police officer reportedly refused to assist in detaining the teen and instead, the two were allowed to leave the checkpoint. Erway ended up renting a car to drive the 600 miles home.
The Erways are seeking damages to be determined by a jury from the TSA and an injunction preventing a similar situation from happening in the future. They’re also suing the supervisor involved.