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.
Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".