Attorney's Treatment by TSA Sparks Same-Sex Policy Change

, The National Law Journal

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airport security

Attorney Hunter Carter and his husband, César Zapata, ran into major turbulence on Jan. 18 when they tried to board an American Airlines flight to Miami at an airport in Medellín, Colombia.

American Airlines personnel, citing a U.S. Transportation Security Administration policy, told the couple that they had to be separately screened before boarding. Carter, a partner in the New York office of Washington’s Arent Fox and an activist in same-sex marriage issues, turned to his political contacts to air his grievances. TSA has subsequently announced it was “working to make clear any confusion in language" in its policy, which is designed “to accommodate all families traveling together,” according to an email to The National Law Journal.

The TSA’s move comes as Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans to recognize same-sex couples in other circumstances, including court proceedings, prison visitation and law enforcement benefits, even in states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage.

Carter talked to the NLJ about his experience. The remarks below have been edited for length and clarity.

NLJ: Tell me what happened that day to you and César.

Carter: We walked up to the counter to get our boarding passes—American puts you through security screenings—and they told us that we had to go through individually. We said: “Why? We’re married.” And they said: “You’re not a man or a woman, so you have to go separately.”

I was a little surprised. The woman behind the counter almost ducked. She was literally sheepish and said, “Let me get the manager.” The manager came over—a big dude with shaved head—and said: “Our regulations require you to go through individual security screening unless you’re a man or a woman who are married.” Then he came behind the counter and physically placed himself between the two of us, which involves contacting both of us, and stuck his arm out and said: “Get back in line.”

Everyone was watching. It was sort of humiliating.

NLJ: Your story occurred outside the United States. Why did this involve a policy of the TSA, even though it occurred with American Airlines personnel at a foreign airport?

Carter: The American Airlines person said: “TSA requires us to do this.” There is a TSA directive to airlines flying from these countries about security screening. And the airline has to perform that additional security screening. It says your ticket-counter people, before giving out boarding passes, have to do the following things about screening: The first rule is screening has to be individual, and the second rule is an exception for married couples.

It was written in 2002 or 2003.

In 2013, there has been a lot of political noise in Colombia about marriage equality. Some people don’t want it. What I personally believe is [that] if you look into the background of the American Airlines person here, he made a personal choice. American has a tremendously good record for the LGBT community. But even in a great organization, you have these wild cards. One of them is this guy.

NLJ: Why do you think your complaint prompted changes from the TSA?

Carter: We contacted two members of Congress, and their staff, who are members of the equality caucus. I also called President Obama’s LGBT person at the White House. I called him shortly after learning from a lawyer at American Airlines the name of the security policy they claimed required them to do this.

And three hours later, I got a call from a lawyer at American Airlines. [TSA] had sent a formal letter giving him permission to interpret this individual-screening rule’s marriage exception to apply to all married couples.

NLJ: What’s your opinion about the TSA’s proposed changes?

Carter: My first reaction is: “Thank you, Mr. President.” My other reaction is TSA moved really quickly once we got Congress and the White House involved. My third reaction is American at a corporate level wanted to fix this fast. And it’s unfortunate some outlier employee, or employees, at American personally aggressively tried to enforce this policy to not treat same-sex legally married couples as legally married.

NLJ: Do you have any future travel plans?

Carter: Funny you ask. I’ll be on the plane a lot over the next few months. César and I are going to go to a wedding in March in Medellín.

NLJ: And if you run into that same American Airlines manager, what will you do?

Carter: I’ll shake his hand and smile at him. My attitude is award, don’t punish.

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.

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