Transgender Pilot Wins Battle Against FAA
In a matter of weeks, Bay Area transgender pilot Tamsyn Waterhouse could once again be fully licensed to fly planes, because she challenged the Federal Aviation Administration and won.
Waterhouse, 32, with support from the Transgender Law Center, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, waged a three-year battle against the federal agency, ultimately prompting it to ease restrictions against transgender pilots.
"After three years of advocacy, we are thrilled to see the FAA remove unnecessary and burdensome barriers for transgender pilots," said Masen Davis, executive director of the TLC, in an email to the Bay Area Reporter. "At [TLC] our goal is to create a society where every person can live authentically, free from discrimination. For Tamsyn, that means being able to fly."
Prior to June 2012, and as stipulated in the FAA Guide for Aviation Medical Examiners, transgender pilots were required to undergo a battery of psychiatric evaluations in order to obtain medical certification. According to Waterhouse, the tests cost thousands of dollars and took days, and, in the end, certification could still be denied.
"Given what an incredibly positive experience gender transition was for me in every respect - from my friends, my family, my colleagues - it kind of made me expect everything would be perfect all the time," Waterhouse said in an interview at Google’s San Francisco offices where she is a software engineer.
"At the same time I was hitting a wall with the FAA. It was kind of a shock. And so I had a desire to move a wall and the confidence that, if everything else can work, then maybe this can, too.
"One of my clearest and fondest memories was flying with my dad in this plane, sitting on a phonebook and getting to touch the controls for the first time. I was hooked," she said.
In 2003, Waterhouse received her private pilot’s license, which consists of two parts: the license itself, which never expires, and a corresponding medical certificate, which must be renewed every three years. To obtain the medical certificate, pilots must visit an aviation medical examiner for a routine physical.
"In the typical case, or at least the ideal case, the AME writes your medical certificate and hands it to you right there," Waterhouse said. "That was the experience I’d had. It was really simple and straightforward."
Not this time. On April 30, 2009, Waterhouse, who had recently begun her gender transition, visited a Bay Area AME for what she thought would be a routine test. She decided to disclose that she was trans. That decision changed her life.
"The AME was a little less than professional after I disclosed I was trans," Waterhouse said, though she does acknowledge he was following FAA procedure. "He told me that my appointment was over and that he would instead forward my file to the FAA."
The FAA responded with a letter to Waterhouse, dated May 26, 2009, requiring her to submit copies of psychological and psychiatric tests, as well as a current medical status report and electrolyte panel if she wanted to be considered for certification.
Waterhouse proceeded on divergent paths. She said she considered taking the time off work to pay "thousands of dollars" to take the tests and hope that the FAA would decide that her results were satisfactory.
She also called psychiatrists and psychologists in the area to tell them about the FAA’s psychological testing policy for transgender pilots.
"Most were surprised," she said. "One was livid and said that’s every test he had ever heard of."
Ultimately, Waterhouse declined to undergo additional psychological exams. She did, however, reply to the FAA’s request, sending letters from her licensed clinical social worker and endocrinologist, both of whom confirmed she was physically and psychologically fit to fly. Those letters weren’t sufficient.
In a letter dated July 7, 2009, the agency informed Waterhouse that she failed to meet the medical standards prescribed in the agency’s code of federal regulations and denied her request for medical certification.
During this time, she called TLC, which worked with NCTE and NGLTF, as well as Congressmen Mike Honda (D-San Jose) and Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), to implore the FAA to change its guidelines.
Waterhouse, in the meantime, pounded the advocacy pavement. She sent emails, conducted research, talked to various people in the community, and chased leads, all the while flying with her instructor to keep her skills sharp and train toward her instrument flight rating.
And she waited. Then in May, the combined efforts of Waterhouse, advocacy groups, and politicians put an end to the waiting game.
"I heard from the TLC and NCTE that there was motion at the FAA," she said. "They said that guidelines were being revised and, fingers crossed, things might get better this summer and that I might want to brush up."
Indeed, in June, the FAA revised its policy for transgender pilots. While documentation from primary care physicians, as well as psychologists or psychiatrists, is still required, the revision removes the psychological testing requirement. The changes are posted online under "Guide for Aviation Medical Examiners" (http://tinyurl.com/949sm8p).
"It has been an honor to work with Tamsyn, as she has shown great principle in fighting for this change," Davis said. "She is an example of how one person can truly make a difference."
Waterhouse is aware of the significance of the FAA’s policy amendment, and especially the advocacy behind the change.
"I discovered that there really are people out there who work to make progressive change," Waterhouse said. "That there are people who work to transform policy and culture and help organizations - even big bureaucratic ones like the FAA - move forward and make it a fairer and safer place for all of us."
However, she notes there is still progress that can be made, as she prepares to apply once again for her medical certification.
"An informed progressive change would not have been possible without the concerted efforts of organizations like TLC and NCTE and Representative Honda and Representative Frank to work with the right people at the FAA to educate them to participate in the revision of FAA medical policy," she said. "It’s not a complete solution, but it’s bureaucratically equivalent to moving a mountain."