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.)
Initial interviewing officer is telling another about my depression, keeps switching he/she. MY PASSPORT IS FEMALE.
— Avery Edison (@aedison) February 11, 2014
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?