Wednesday • 2013.05.08
U.S. Genderqueer Denied Entry to Visit Canadian Partner; Officers See Therapist Letter, Question Mental Health
Very disturbing information has emerged about an incident which recently occurred at the Peace Bridge, one of the road crossings along the Canada / U.S. border, at the hands of Canada’s federal Border Services Agency (CBSA).
Toby, 25, is an American citizen and resident of New York state. Identifying as genderqueer, Toby does not use gendered pronouns (such as he or she).
On Wednesday May 1st, Toby boarded a Megabus route from NYC to Toronto, intending to visit their partner of 8 months, Graysen, who is a Canadian living in the Greater Toronto Area.
Toby and Graysen had been planning the visit for several weeks, and took all possible steps to avoid difficulties in Toby’s border crossing:
- All of Toby’s travel documentation is up-to-date, and their U.S. passport is valid.
- They investigated travel visa requirements, but for a short visit such as this, no travel visa is expected or required, so they did not apply for one.
- Toby’s gender presentation on the day of the border crossing was “male,” to match the gender presentation in their passport photo, also “male.” The photo on the passport is recent, and completely recognizable as Toby.
- The Megabus ticket was Return, not One-Way (as may raise suspicion). It was a bargain at $8.80, easily affordable despite Toby’s limited income. The ticket was registered in Toby’s legal name, to match the legal name reflected on the Passport.
There was, however, one glaring snag—something not affecting most travellers, but which Toby was powerless to avoid: Toby’s passport (they have consented to disclose) bears the legal sex designation “F” for female, due to the widespread practice of identification by pediatric genital assessment.
Although binary (male or female) identified Trans* Americans can now access gender appropriate passports without surgery if they are able to show a doctor’s note evidencing gender identity treatment, those such as Toby who don’t identify as either “M” or “F” have no options. With non-matching ID, they are left to struggle with the stigma and (as this incident proves) the very real risk of being singled-out for harassment, extra questions, and of being blocked entirely at the border.
Toby knows better than most people the special risks faced by non-cis persons trying to exercise their constitutional right of mobility. Trans* persons are disproportionately singled out for additional screening when attempting to cross the border. Last year, I reported on the case of a Canadian Trans* woman who was fingerprinted and interrogated by U.S. Customs after she presented a passport bearing a male sex designation.
Despite having taken all of the prescribed steps and having all their documents in order, knowledge of this impending risk weighed heavily in Toby’s mind.
“I was in line to show my documents and already very anxious, and exhibiting it. (The Officer) told me to calm down, and asked if I would be okay… I said something like ‘yes, eventually…’”
Toby immediately identified themself to the CBSA agent by their legal name, and explained that the reason they also use an assumed name—and prefer to be called—”Toby,” is due to gender identity.
Toby is Quickly Singled Out for Travelling While Trans*
“Shortly after, I was escorted to Immigration by this officer and left to stand in line until I was brought up to a counter for questioning,” explains Toby. They also outed Toby in front of strangers, by using Toby’s full legal name (which is gendered female) in earshot of members of the public.
“What happened next, over the course of about an hour and a half, was an interrogation…”
The officers responded to Toby skeptically, pressing in with ever more specific and intrusive questions about Toby’s identity. When these additional questions were raised, and it was clear that Toby’s gender identity and expression were a point of concern for the officer, Toby did what they had been trained to do—what our gatekeepers, and even our legislators have told us to do in these situations. Toby presented their therapist’s note… the other travel document in the “please treat me like a normal human being” Trans* person toolkit.
“I’d shown a letter from my gender therapist in… NY, (on hospital letterhead). It says I’m in therapy and currently undergoing FTM transition.” The Immigration official took away the letter along with all of Toby’s other documentation, as well as their mobile phone. “He proceeded to ask about why I’m there, who I’m visiting, the specifics of my mental illness and treatment, up to and including how much medication I take and when/how often I take it and why.”
After requesting the telephone number to speak to Toby’s partner Graysen, the officer departed into a private room.
The Intimidating Phone Call
Graysen says the call from CBSA was unexpected, and disturbing. Initially, the questions were routine; Graysen was able to confirm for the officer that Toby’s visit was expected, and was able to provide both Toby’s chosen and birth names to the officer. There was some initial confusion over Toby’s legal surname, but this was quickly cleared up. The officer asked about the nature of their relationship. “Toby and I are in a relationship. We’re partners,” Graysen explained.
More intrusive questions followed. Graysen reports the officer wanted to know how long they had been in a relationship (8 months), Graysen’s age (22), Graysen’s employment status (full-time student at University of Toronto), university major (Sexual Diversity Studies), financial situation, and living circumstances. After disclosing that they cohabitate with supportive parents while attending school, Graysen was asked if their parents were aware of Toby and the planned visit (Yes). Then the officer asked Graysen, who let’s remember is 22 years old, to put the parents on the phone. As it happens they were unavailable.
Toby says the immigration officer, like his counterpart from the initial customs screening, expressed suspicion because of the differences in preferred names and legal names due to gender identity.
“Graysen and I were subjected to repeated misgendering, especially after being forced to disclose our transgender status due to questioning about our names, my surname in particular. Graysen was not obliged to give such information, which the officer took as suspicious.” After the phone call, the immigration officer returned to question Toby further.
Intense Additional Scrutiny—Fishing for a ‘Reason’
Toby was grilled on specific plans while in Canada, which included regular attendance at a community support group. The officer demanded that Toby provide the specific street address for each meeting, and to recite Graysen’s home address from memory, which Toby was unable to do. The details were stored in their mobile phone, which the officer had confiscated. “At this point I’ve asked for my phone back several times and he refuses to return it, saying ‘in a few moments’ multiple times, and leaving me with no means of outside communication.” Toby says at this point the man became hostile.
Questions about financial status forced Toby to disclose that, unable to work, their only income is from disability payments from U.S. Social Security. “He tells me I cannot ‘sustain myself’ on that,” and then, Toby says, he proceeded to criticize Toby for having accepted offers of support from friends in the past.
“(The man) told me early on that my gender letter had ‘no bearing’ on whether I could enter (Canada), but he delved into it anyway after spotting that I was in therapy.” The immigration official prodded Toby, wanting to hear in excruciating detail about Toby’s past medical and psychiatric treatments. Further questioning revealed that Toby’s therapeutic history had included time as an in-patient.
“Eventually (the officer) comes back from speaking with his supervisor and gives me a final decision of ‘no,’ apparently based on my finances and mental health.”
Toby says the officer told them “it hasn’t been long enough since September (8 months ago) when you were in in-patient, I want it to be a few more weeks so you can have moved on from that.”
Furthermore, disregarding Graysen’s confirmation that Toby was welcome and expected, he challenged Toby on the legitimacy of their plans together. “What if you have a falling out? What if they tell you to go home? How will you sustain yourself here?”
CBSA Hits Discrimination Trifecta: Transphobia, Ableism, and Classism
There is nothing illegitimate about the fact that Toby accesses disability benefits from the U.S. Government. Nor is there any shame whatsoever in having a history which includes necessary in-patient therapeutic services. And of course, neither of these serves as justification for nullifying Toby’s civil rights. Nevertheless, these factors of ableism and classism apparently weighed heavily enough on the Canada Border Services Agency’s final decision to bar Toby from Canada.
Furthermore, had it not been for the fact that the restrictive sex designation on Toby’s passport doesn’t “match” their gender expression, Toby would never even have been subjected to the harrowing experience of secondary screening in the first place.
Secondary screening is supposed to be reserved for those deemed suspicious or risky for admission to Canada; I would like to see CBSA explain what, precisely, is so disproportionately suspicious about people who live with Trans* identities that it justifies terrorizing us into submission at every turn.
It is eminently clear that CBSA and Immigration officers either have not received the necessary anti-discrimination training incumbent on officers charged with exercising Canadian law appropriately, or perhaps (at least in the case of these specific individuals) they just don’t give a shit about Trans* people.
Toby reports that throughout the entire process, CBSA and Immigration officers repeatedly referred to them, and to Graysen, as “she” and “her,” even after what turned out to be a protracted discussion about Toby’s situation and identity. “(The male officer) only called me Toby when I was about to leave.”
CBSA forced Toby to wait outside for a cab to arrive, to return them to the U.S. Border. “I waited for about an hour,” says Toby, but they were not allowed access to their luggage. “(I was) told to leave my bags inside until the cab arrived.”
Toby was then taken by cab and delivered to U.S. Border Patrol agents for further inquiry where, bewilderingly, they were informed that their “biggest roadblock” with Canadian customs had been “documentation.”
“I had the required stuff according to their own website, but they covered their transphobia and everything else by telling me I didn’t have enough documentation to get in.” When Toby asked the U.S. Border officer what specific documentation was allegedly missing, the officer declined to answer.
Although CBSA covered the cost of the short cab ride across the bridge, Toby was on the hook for a $56 greyhound ticket necessary to return to their New York home. “I am sad, disgusted, humiliated, afraid, angry, numb,” wrote Toby shortly after the incident.
Toby and Graysen are currently pursuing legal options to obtain a copy of the report filed by CBSA on the incident, to find out how Toby’s refusal was justified on paper. I will be following this story.