For the first time in TSA history, three Employee Resource Groups – WE@TSA, WE@FAMS and TSA Pride – joined together to co-sponsor a TSA Pride specific “Why Not You” virtual panel discussion, featuring female leaders who are members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The four panelists included Law Enforcement/Federal Air Marshal Services Assistant Supervisory Air Marshal in Charge Alana Bell, Civil Rights & Liberties/Ombudsman and Travel Engagement Customer Service Branch Manager Nicole French, Transportation Security Operations Center Command Duty Officer Mary Rupert, and Lead Transportation Security Manager Carmen Shands. They are all proud members of the LGBTQ+ community, leaders in the workforce and open about being their authentic selves.
TSA Pride Board Member Steven Petrick served as the moderator for the virtual forum, with over 100 individuals participating. Key topics shared in the discussion included career journeys, diversity and inclusion, and available resources from the perspective of LGBTQ+ community members.
TSA Administrator David Pekoske, special guest and ally of the LGBTQ+ community, delivered opening remarks that shared updates about pay equity, open communication and the importance of transparency.
“I think that the core of a well-functioning organization is to be transparent internally with our employees, externally with our stakeholders and have good, open lines of communication,” said Pekoske. “I have deep respect for the expertise, the professionalism, the capability, and the perspectives that each and every one of our employees brings to the table.”
Stephanie Metzger, an out member of the LGBTQ+ community and host of the event, said, “The goal of today’s panel was to reinforce to the female workforce or to those that belong in marginalized communities that you should see yourself in these positions. We want to make sure that you know that you’re not defined by the color of your skin, how you identify and that your success or selection for leadership positions is attainable, no matter who you are or where you come from.”
During the discussion, panelists encouraged anyone considering being their authentic self in the workplace to do so. They suggested if rumors circulate, the best practice is to not spread them. Panelists urged employees to network, consider working in different offices, and maximize detail opportunities as methods to help navigate their journey.
“Employees have a safe space where they feel included, and are able to bring their whole selves to work,” Pekoske added. “Rest assured, you have my strong support in your effort to make us a more inclusive and a better, more diverse organization.”
TSA has also shared the story of St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL) TSA Officer and TSA Pride board member, Brent Atwood, who is approaching his 20th anniversary with the agency in September. Atwood says he has found his niche as a change agent at the grass roots level. His wisdom in effectively communicating with co-workers up and down the chain reaps rewards throughout TSA.
“I’ve had numerous opportunities to be promoted into other positions, but have instead chosen to remain in my current position as a TSA officer,” said Atwood.
He’s currently a union steward, safety officer, passenger support specialist, employee advisory council member and occupies a seat on STL’s travel support team. Atwood has spent six years on the National Deployment Force, serving at over 20 airports and has participated in the Diversity Advisory Council, the Idea Factory [an internal website for innovation and feedback] and STL’s lost and found office.
“What I do matters because it shows there is so much more to working for TSA than just being a TSA officer. I feel my actions show by getting out there and being involved. You can have a direct impact helping to create change within our organization,” Atwood said. “I feel my actions as a TSA officer matter because I strive to be the best officer I can, and that will help offset any negative views people have about TSA.”
As a hard-charging advocate for the TSA mission and its people, Atwood has become widely known as a person who gets things done.
“Caring for the wellbeing and fair treatment of my co-workers is something I have always done,” said Atwood of his collateral responsibilities. “Each and every one of these positions are ones I consider my proudest achievement.”
His most recent accomplishment happened earlier this month. As a board member of TSA Pride, a virtual community of employees and contractors interested in LBGTQ+ topics at TSA, Atwood stood with others at TSA Headquarters as the Pride flag was ceremoniously raised.
“It’s truly an honor and a privilege that I was able to attend and be a part of something so truly historic,” said Atwood. “The show of support from the Administrator and the agency is amazing.”
Atwood sees the flag raising as emblematic of the change working within the agency. He points to the new Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) field testing and corresponding gender-neutral verbiage changes as progress.
Currently, AIT screening relies on gender-specific algorithms and a generic physical outline of the human body identical for all passengers. In an enhanced version being field tested, AIT units will function with a gender-neutral algorithm.
“Not having to choose between pressing a pink or blue button [to activate the screening] takes away the guesswork and will be huge in making an uncomfortable situation better for the officers and the passengers,” said Atwood. “It’s all about dignity and screening everyone with respect.”
Making things better hasn’t always been easy, and Atwood has had to find the balance in communicating with management when he’s advocating for a person or a just cause.
“I think the one skill that would have made my professional progress move faster had I learned it sooner would be finding that balance in communicating with management that is both professional and respectful, but also shows confidence without arrogance,” said Atwood. “It’s a fine line that took me years to learn.”
Atwood has never been discriminated against or treated disrespectfully at TSA for being gay, but as a board member of TSA Pride, he’s unfortunately heard other colleagues may not have had such positive experiences. That’s why his work with TSA Pride is so important to him.
“One of our main focuses on the TSA Pride board is to create change,” said Atwood. We provide resources for people who have [bad] experiences so they can get them addressed. That is a very big part of what we are trying to accomplish.”
Atwood said Pride Month is a time to celebrate diversity and inclusion. “The LGBTQIA+ community is not limited to just lesbian and gay individuals but is home to a vast array of uniqueness and diversity. Pride Month also means family. Having been out and involved in the community since I was 16, I have had the amazing opportunity to meet so many incredible individuals, many of whom I am still in contact with today. They are like family to me.”
Atwood expects to see a lot of change and diversity in leadership. “Everyone’s going to be who they are, and no one’s going to care. Inclusiveness will be normal, and everyone will be treated the same.”
This article is a combination of stories from TSA Strategic Communications and Public Affairs writers TeaNeisha Barker and Karen Robicheaux.