Monday • 2012.02.06
Detained at the Airport: One Trans Woman’s Horrifying Story
Several months before Transport Canada introduced their discriminatory ID regulation which, technically, completely bans almost all trans people from flying, one woman’s travel plans were turned into a terrible ordeal of nightmarish proportions—and all because the Canadian government denies trans people access to proper ID.
Meet Jennifer McCreath, from Newfoundland. She’s a marathon runner, a blogger, and an avid poster on YouTube. She is also a trans woman. Today, she has graciously allowed me to interview her and to share the details of her story.
In January of 2011, after years of effort and expense, Jennifer McCreath finally reached her goal of undergoing SRS (Sex Reassignment Surgery).
After her surgery, she immediately filed for a new birth certificate from the Province of Nova Scotia (her birthplace), so she could finally have a piece of ID which matched her gender identity. Like Ontario, Nova Scotia requires certified proof of surgery from two medical professionals prior to issuing an updated birth certificate with a revised sex designation.
Acquiring these two medical affidavits cost Jennifer $60; an additional economic hardship for Jennifer, since as part of her quest she had already spent thousands of dollars on psychiatrists and medical treatments and on her surgeries (due to inequalities in access to provincial socialized healthcare services for trans people).
The Government of Nova Scotia says that new birth certificates “will normally be processed within 10 business days,” but despite following all of the requirements to the letter, the issuing of Jennifer’s new birth certificate took much longer than that. Scheduled to fly in March of 2011 to run a marathon, visit friends, and see a doctor, Jennifer had already been waiting more than 7 weeks—but her new birth certificate was a no-show in the mail.
With her flight date impending, and with her passport bearing a Sex designation reading “M” for “male,” Jennifer realized there would not be enough time to get the passport updated once her birth certificate finally arrived; she had no choice but to fly using her passport as-is. Would it cause her a problem at the airport?
“It was Thursday March 17th, 2011. I had just arrived from Newfoundland, in Toronto Pearson international airport, and had to go through customs before I could get on my next airplane, down to the United States,” she tells in a video recorded shortly after the incident.
She was asked the normal questions. Where are you going? How long are you staying? What are you bringing? No problems. Then the U.S. Customs agent asked for Jennifer’s passport, and that’s where her trouble started.
“I presented my passport, and I was sent to ‘Secondary Screening.‘” As soon as Jennifer arrived at the Secondary Screening office, she was forced to supply fingerprints, and have her photo taken like a common criminal. She was then forced to sit, and wait, for more than ninety minutes before anyone else spoke to her. Jennifer missed her plane.
“Several other people came through Secondary Screening (and were provided service and allowed to leave) before I was served,” Jennifer recounts.
Immediately after she had missed her plane, Jennifer was finally called up. They searched her bags. That’s when an already bad situation took a turn for the surreal, and humiliating. “They started asking me all sorts of bizarre personal questions about my sexuality.” Then, Jennifer says, “they were asking me questions about this surgery that they were assuming I had had.”
In a search of her carry-on bag, U.S. Customs agents had discovered a very sensitive, intimate post-operative care device, which at the time it was medically necessary for Jennifer to be carrying.
“I actually have a doctor’s note that describes (the medical device) as urgent for me to have on my person, and can’t afford to lose them in luggage and to please let me carry them on board,” she explains. But presenting this document was not enough to satisfy U.S. Customs. She was asked question after invasive question; about her surgery, about what medications she was on, and about the purpose and specific intimate application of the medical device she was carrying.
She was grilled on topics that no traveller should have to address. There was no conceivable legitimate reason for the interrogation Jennifer experienced. Certainly, the questioning went far beyond the limits of what can justifiably be asked of a passenger for security reasons. What’s more, she says the interrogation was not even done in private; “There was a steady flow of other passengers going through secondary screening,” she says. Jennifer thinks it’s unlikely her interrogation was overheard by other passengers, but she can’t be sure.
Jennifer says she found herself forced to give a Transsexual “101 lesson” to complete strangers. “I don’t mind educating people about trans issues, but in this case, U.S.A. customs and immigration should have already learned about trans issues,” she says.
Finally, she was allowed to clear customs. The airline fee to change flights (since she had missed her first one) was an additional $80 from out of Jennifer’s pocket.
All of this could have been avoided, if Jennifer’s old passport had only read “F” in the first place. But, Passport Canada does not allow trans people to get appropriate ID (unless they have had surgery).
Passport Canada does offer a temporary passport with a change of “sex” indicated, intended for trans people in transition. It is only available to pre-operative trans people who are able to prove that their surgery is scheduled within 12 months. The temporary passport is only good for two years before it expires, and it cannot be renewed. Meaning, each trans person only gets one shot at it. Still, if Jennifer had applied for this passport within the year prior to her surgery, she might have avoided the confusion that led to her detainment. So why didn’t she? “I wasn’t told about that option,” she explained.
Prior to her surgery, Jennifer had engaged in one lengthy phone call with Passport Canada, as well as two visits in-person to their passport renewal offices, all with one simple specific question: how to get a passport with a sex designation which matched her gender identity (“F”)?
Never once did any staff of Passport Canada, either on the phone, or in person, inform Jennifer about the option of a “temporary” passport. “I was told the only way to get (gender designation “F”) was after SRS,” she says.
It’s not the first time the mismatch between Jennifer’s “male” passport and her female gender identity have caused her unnecessary grief.
“There was also an incident at Halifax airport (in) 2008,” she explains. “I was confronted about being in (the) female washroom. Security insisted I was man, based on (the sex designation from the) passport, and asked that I use ‘Family’ washrooms until (after my Sex Reassignment Surgery was) completed… I complained to Halifax airport authority and they apologized.”
Security was in the wrong for harassing Jennifer about using the ladies’ room, and thankfully the airport administration did acknowledge that. Still, Jennifer says, “having an F on my ID would have helped to make it easier to explain to (security personnel) why I was in said washroom,” and would have prevented the misunderstanding.
We can all agree that Transport Canada’s discriminatory new regulations are terrible (and luckily, they might indeed be done away with soon). But as Jennifer’s experience clearly illustrates, the real problem is bigger, and has existed since long before these regs came into effect. “I need to get my IDs updated, so I can carry on with my life,” says Jennifer.
So do all trans people. Now, we are fortunate that we finally have members of the government hearing us, and understanding our difficulties. Maybe now, government ministries will reform these ID policies, and drop the surgery requirement, so that the great and unnecessary burdens on our lives will finally be eased.
The time has come for reform of the identification practices at Passport Canada, and throughout Canada. Eliminate any requirement of surgery to update ID for trans people. It’s a violation of our dignity, it creates undue hardship, and it forces us into situations which compromise our human rights.