Avery Edison: how could Canada consider sending a trans woman to a male prison?

A Briton detained by immigration officials in Canada was repeatedly referred to as "he" and sent to a male prison, despite holding a female passport. In 2014, why are so many authorities still so bad at dealing with trans people?

It seems like every week brings with it a fresh new controversy about the way some hapless transgender person has been treated poorly by an interviewer, a police officer, a journalist, a school or a church. This has been going on for years, of course, but the difference now is that there’s an angry online mob ever ready to respond. I happen to find much of this anger deeply off-putting and I suspect it puts off a good deal of people the trans community might otherwise count as allies too. Often, though, it does seem to work.

I could give you plenty of examples of the braying crowd kicking up a fuss and achieving something – the way sports magazine Grantland treated a trans interview subject, the fallout over the death of teacher Lucy Meadows, Janet Mock's encounter with Piers Morgan – but none quite so effective as the latest outrage over a British transgender woman who was sent to a men’s prison in Canada. Stand-up comic Avery Edison flew to Canada on an expired visa and was barred from entering the country. Her tweets describe how border police referred to her as “he” before insisting that she undergo the humiliation of a medical examination to work out where she should be detained. Her passport says she is female, though she has not had genital surgery and retains a penis. (At least the UK Passport Agency seems to be clued up on transgender issues.)

 

 

Toronto Pearson Airport didn’t know what to do with her and I admit that, for your average Joe, the question of what to do with a woman-with-a-penis has probably never come up. Shouldn’t airport staff have some sort of training on situations like this, though? Statistically speaking, Edison is rare, but not unique. She summed it up best with a tweet: “Please keep Toronto Airport customs/immigration officials in your thoughts, as this is apparently their first time meeting a trans person.” And this is in Canada, which we’re told has some of the best rights for LGBT people in the world. That this could happen there, of all places, gives you a taste of how harrowing travel can be for transgender people. Supposedly progressive Denmark put transgender asylum seeker Fernanda Milan in a male detention centre in 2012 – where her medical treatment was stopped and she was repeatedly raped. If you respect the rights of transgender women you don’t put them in men’s prisons, regardless of their genital status. And if Canada and Denmark treat trans people like this, what do you think it’s like elsewhere?

One of the successes of transgender people’s push for social acceptance is making society aware that we exist outside ridiculous comedy stereotypes. The hope is that, once everyone realises that transgender people are real human beings they might start treating us like human beings. Still, it seems 60 years' worth of documentaries on transgender people, transgender chat show guests, enough transition tales to fill a library and around three articles on the subject every day in the Daily Mail, some people still haven’t got the message. Transgender people exist.

I don’t mean to patronise the powers-that-be but wouldn’t it be prudent, if, like Toronto Airport, you are responsible for dealing with members of the public – in all their wonderful human diversity – you had some sort of policy on what to do with transgender people? You know, guidelines? Because at some point transgender people are going to walk through your airport or sit down in your restaurant or commit a crime or any of the other things people do and you’ll need to be prepared. Prisons, airport security and hospitals need to develop robust and clear guidelines. Or else we'll be seeing this again and again.

To say the prison system is patchy in its approach to trans inmates is an understatement. If, like me, you’re eagerly awaiting the second series of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, you probably already know about fictional women’s prison Litchfield and its transgender hairdresser Sophia, played by the brilliant Laverne Cox. Critics questioned her inclusion in the show when it first aired last year – was it, they asked, truly realistic to see a trans woman in a women’s prison in the US? Some trans women are treated as women by the prison system, but many are not. Take Chelsea Manning. She was sentenced while she still publicly identified as male and was sent to a male prison. The facility that’s holding her refuses to let her transition while she’s incarcerated – essentially she’s being denied medical care. Since when do we deny prisoners medical care? They may as well have put her in Guantanamo Bay. I spent eight months as a gender non-conforming person in a male prison and it wasn’t much fun. Prison’s not meant to be fun, of course, but it’s a cruel and unusual extra layer of punishment to place a trans woman in a men’s facility. And Edison hasn’t even been convicted of anything.

This is part of a culture that punishes difference, blames victims and lacks empathy. It would be nice to see some humanity in these situations or, in the absence of that, better guidelines on how to treat people. It’s the same failure we see when gay asylum seekers are asked to give intimate details and, sometimes, photos of their sex lives to prove they are who they say they are, or indeed the disbelief of rape victims seeking refuge here. It’s a disbelief characterised by privilege: the cushy, unquestioned joy of not knowing what it feels like for the other person. To stand there, humiliated, while people you don’t know tell you what they think your gender should be. That you are fake. Inauthentic. Not what you say you are. A message trans people hear all the time, of course.

Those who police our borders are invested with the power of the state, but this is also about prejudices, false assumptions and plain old ignorance. As a trans person you frequently find yourself in conflict with society – whether you’re setting up a direct debit or buying a pint of milk – so is it really surprising that border control offers more of the same? Why would they excel where the rest of society so dismally fails to accommodate the existence of trans people?

Edison has been transferred to a women’s prison following the eruption of online outrage on her behalf. Another poor soul is saved, but what if we didn’t have the web? And just how many more times does the Internet have to step in and correct the failings of the state?

Avery Edison.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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