AUSTIN (KXAN) — The federal government announced new measures Thursday aimed at making the travel experience easier for Americans regardless of their gender identity.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shared how agency leaders believe technology upgrades and process changes will improve screening procedures as “part of a concerted effort by the Biden-Harris Administration to advance equality for transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming Americans,” according to a news release. These actions came in conjunction with the White House officially recognizing March 31 as Transgender Day of Visibility, which is a day dedicated to celebrating accomplishments of transgender people while still acknowledging the violence and discrimination they face.
Later this year, DHS stated the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) intends to roll out updates to its body scanner technology that will make the machines gender-neutral. The White House said in a statement, “By replacing the current, gender-based system with this more accurate technology, TSA will improve the customer experience of transgender travelers who have previously been required to undergo additional screening due to alarms in sensitive areas.”
The way it’s set up now, TSA agents have discretion to choose either a male or female option to scan people based on how they perceive their appearance. If their body doesn’t match that kind of binary algorithm, then chances are they’ll get pulled aside for additional screening.
TSA said it received $18.6 million to work with the manufacturer of its body scanners “to complete the development, testing, and deployment of algorithm updates to AIT units nationwide.” Once that testing is complete, then TSA said it will deploy the technology update to airports around the country.
In addition to changing airport screening equipment, another action will allow for the use of an “X” for travelers going through Precheck who do not identify as male or female. TSA officers will also receive new instructions on screening intended to make procedures less invasive. The TSA will work with airlines to promote the acceptance of the “X” gender marker.
Emmett Schelling, the executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, called these announcements “a gift,” especially on Transgender Day of Visibility. He said he’s not a fan of flying because he always knows security will flag him for additional searches and pat-downs, so he hopes these changes will improve that experience.
“This is what it comes down to: we just want to be able to exist [and] live our lives just the same as anybody else,” Schelling said. “Nobody wants to sit here and have to have special exceptions because nobody wants to have to stand there and draw that kind of attention to themselves over something that other people then receive with more questions, as opposed to let’s think of solutions. I think, hopefully, we can get out of that place.”
Starting on April 11, the White House announced Americans can also choose to have an “X” as their gender marker on their U.S. passport application.
“This is a major step in delivering on the President’s commitment to expand access to accurate identification documents for transgender and non-binary Americans,” the White House wrote in a statement.
Following the release of these new actions, President Biden posted a video on Twitter talking about why he’s recognizing Transgender Day of Visibility and included a veiled dig at states like Texas.
“The onslaught of anti-transgender state laws attacking you and your families is simply wrong,” Biden said in the video. “This administration is standing up for you against all these hateful bills, and we’re committed to advancing transgender equality in the classroom, on the playing field, at work, in our military, in our housing and health care systems — everywhere.”
Texas became the largest state last year to ban transgender students from playing on school sports teams that match their gender identity — a trend that many states with Republican leaders have since enacted. Attorney General Ken Paxton also issued a nonbinding legal opinion in February that classified certain transitioning procedures as child abuse. That opinion then led Gov. Greg Abbott to direct the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to open child abuse investigations into families who seek gender-affirming health care for their transgender children.
Paxton asked the state Supreme Court to intervene to allow child abuse investigations into parents of transgender children. His request comes just days after a Texas appeals court reinstated a temporary injunction blocking the state’s child welfare agency from investigating parents solely because they provide gender-affirming care to their children.
Protests against those actions ensued and made some parents hide or consider leaving the state with their kids, Schelling said.
He pointed to the recent DFPS council meeting where volunteers spoke on behalf of more than 80 families with trans kids because they said they were too scared to come and address the group in person. For those reasons, he called the circumstances surrounding this year’s Transgender Day of Visibility “bittersweet” because people in Texas could now face consequences for publicly acknowledging who they are.
“What we have seen is people across the trans community that are adults, young people who know that their lives have been saved by gender-affirming care have come out en masse to be visible in ways that I think go above and beyond an individual sense,” Schelling said. “It’s wanting to be as visible as they can because we know the sooner that people understand who we are, this narrative about us that’s based in fear and really misinformation is not who we are.”
Democratic leaders in Texas also shared their support Thursday for the transgender community. Beto O’Rourke, the gubernatorial candidate, tweeted a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt with the words “Don’t Mess with Trans Kids” written on it.