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.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
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The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem