New airport screening rules for transgender travellers hailed by Edmonton advocate

New policies dictating how transgender people are screened at Canadian airports are long overdue, says an Edmonton transgender rights advocate.

'Treating people with respect and dignity, regardless of their gender, should be their way of doing business'

A new federal policies will provide increased privacy for transgender travellers at Canada's airports. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

New policies dictating how transgender people are screened at Canadian airports are long overdue, says an Edmonton transgender rights advocate.

The new protocol from the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) — the federal agency in charge of security at airports across the country — provides increased sensitivity and privacy for trans travellers.

"When they implement a policy like this, I think it's certainly a big step forward in starting to understand that when you look at someone, you can't make an assumption about their gender," said Marni Panas, a transgender woman and LGBT advocate.

"Treating people with respect and dignity, regardless of their gender, should be their way of doing business." 

An internal operations bulletin obtained by CBC Montreal through an access to information request instructs airport security officers how to handle physical searches of transgender people.

Under the new procedures, trans passengers can request a search by either a male or a female officer, or they can request a "split search," where a female searches one half of the body and a male officer searches the other half.

'There is always that anxiety' 

Though she's never had a negative experience with the screenings, Panas is overwhelmed with anxiety every time she passes through airport security.  Like many transgender people, she tries to hide her status when travelling.

She hopes the new policy will help ease some of that fear.

"Every single time I go through security I wonder, is this the moment where someone is going to peg me? Is this the moment where I'm not going to be treated well?

"There is always that anxiety when I'm travelling."
Marni Panas said the new protocols are the first step in providing equitable travel access to transgender people.
 The bulletin from CATSA also offers guidance on treating transgender travellers with respect, including asking for a person's consent before any search and inquiring if any accommodations are required.

A transgender passenger can also request that security screenings be conducted in a private screening area, and that a witness of the opposite sex be present.

Although she's relieved the policies are now being implemented, Panas worries that the procedures could be problematic if staff aren't properly trained in how to carry them out.

Every single time I go through security I wonder ... Is this the moment where I'm not going to be treated well?- Marni Panas, transgender rights advocate

Many transgender people hide their status when travelling, and staff need to be well educated so that screenings are approached tactfully, Panas said.

"Policies are great, laws are great to protect people, but unless they're implemented properly it can still leave people exposed to challenges in these environments," Panas said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"If people aren't trained well to respect people, and still provide a dignified manner in approaching this conversation, it can still can create many barriers in going through security."

Panas said the policy is a first step in recognizing the rights of transgender travellers in Canada.

While the airport security gate may no longer be a source of anxiety, other policies will continue to impede their ability to travel with dignity.

"We still have people that can't get passports or identification to match their true gender," she said. "We still have people being denied access to airplanes because they don't look man enough or woman enough depending on what their passport looks like.

"There are still many areas in this country that leave transgender travellers at risk for being denied basic transit services that other Canadians have."