Trans Woman Sent to Men's Prison
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Trans Woman Sent to Men’s Prison

Comedian Avery Edison arrived at Pearson airport and wound up in a men's prison, highlighting ongoing trans equity issues.

Photo by Pat Dryburgh

Photo by Pat Dryburgh via Flickr.

Avery Edison is a twenty-five year-old writer and comedian who now lives in London, England. Before that, though, she spent time in Canada, and yesterday she flew into Pearson Airport, planning to stay in the country for three weeks while she saw her girlfriend and friends and collected things she’d left behind.

Customs agents at Pearson weren’t prepared to let her leave the airport, however: she had overstayed her student visa the last time she was in the country, and while she thought a non-refundable return ticket might speak to her intention to return to England, airport authorities were unconvinced and proceeded to detain her and search her belongings. “This is 100% my fault, but it still sucks,” Edison tweeted.

But what started out as an experience of visa-related frustration became an exercise in bureaucratic confusion and ignorance, then active mistreatment, as the authorities discovered that Edison is a pre-operative trans woman.

After spending over six hours in an immigration waiting room, Edison was told she was going to be taken to an immigration detention centre, where she’d likely have to be held in solitary because of her pre-operative status. An officer discussing her situation on the phone commented, “I have one male for pick-up.” Interviewing officers occasionally referred to her as “he”; on her passport Edison is identified as female.

While settling in for the night on the floor of the waiting room, she was told that there’d been a change of plans: the next day, she’d be going to a women’s detention centre in Milton. Although she would have been permitted to leave the country if someone had bought her a new plane ticket, Edison decided to stay—she wanted to see the people who’d been waiting for her at the airport all day, and she wanted to protest her situation: “Yes, I messed up,” she tweeted, “but my treatment has been deplorable.”

Her situation continued to change without warning. Edison was then informed that the detention centre in Milton was no longer her destination, and that she’d be sent to the Maplehurst Correctional Complex, where she’d be assessed by a nurse before being assigned to a cell. While Maplehurst shares its grounds with Vanier Centre for Women, it is a men’s prison. “Literally going to jail,” she tweeted. “Actual jail. Because they don’t know what to do about my junk.”

Edison has not been active on the internet since last night, but her girlfriend @rahrahtempleton tweeted this morning that Edison was taken to a men’s prison last night. She also reported that one employee she spoke with, after being informed of Edison’s trans status, said, “Oh, that’s why they took him there.” She was apparently also told that Edison has “male parts, so male prison,” by an employee who then repeatedly referred to Avery as “he.”

Toronto MPP Cheri DiNovo (Parkdale–High Park) helped enshrine trans rights in Ontario with the passage of Toby’s Act in 2012, and was frustrated upon hearing about Edison’s case Tuesday morning. “I was shocked. Things are dangerous enough in prison, let alone being trans.” She said her staff is working to clarify Edison’s status, including whether she’ll be able to stay in a separate female cell at Maplehurst.

By explicitly adding gender identity and gender expression to the Human Rights Code, Toby’s Act codified the same protections that others in the queer community already had. These legal protections include housing rights, and DiNovo said that beyond the alleged crime Edison is charged with, she sees this as a case of institutions struggling to keep up with and understand changing legislation, “The bottom line is, that if she is in a prison, it should be a female prison.”

A Trudeau scholar at the U of T faculty of law, Kyle Kirkup is working on a doctoral thesis on the role of the legal system as it relates to gender and sexual norms. “We have an administrative classification that puts people into binary categories: men or women,” he told Torontoist in a phone interview. He points out that even though Edison and her papers identified her as a woman, preconceived notions about gender identity appear to have played a big role in the treatment she’s receiving: “Generally speaking in terms of prison policy it’s based on anatomy, which creates a series of problems.”

Kirkup says that growing realms of public policy—including criminal justice—are moving towards self-identification as the standard for determining gender, whereas internal prison policy still leans towards anatomical identification despite those policies and trends. Recent developments include legislation like Toby’s Act, and judicial rulings like XY v. Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, a landmark human rights case which decided that “gender identity should be recognized based on lived identity, and not depend on a surgical procedure.”

Speaking about Edison’s case, which he followed on Twitter as it unfolded, Kirkup said, “It’s clear that the security people didn’t have the correct training, from using the incorrect pronoun to not following the right protocol in where to send her.”

Asked about the bigger picture in Edison’s case, Kirkup added, “It shines a light on something that happens every day and gives us the opportunity to do something about it.”

UPDATE: February 12, 2014, 9:15 AM After public outcry over her treatment, Avery Edison was moved to the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton, Ontario, on the evening of February 11.