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.
Getty
Show Hide image

What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot