Canada: Trans woman detained under US flight rules

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In the wake of Canada’s continued support of a no-fly rule for anyone who fails to meet gender norms, as subjectively assessed by that country’s border police, a harrowing tale emerges of an incident last year in the United States.

This is the sorry tale of how US Customs officials decided to apply such a test – and as a result humiliated and embarrassed a Canadian woman who was on her way to run a marathon and visit friends.

The story, released today by Christin Milloy, who also alerted the world to Canada’s no-fly rule, is that of Jennifer McCreath, from Newfoundland.

Following GRS in January 2011, Ms McCreath applied for a new birth certificate from the Nova Scotia administration, secure in the knowledge that according to officials there, she should expect to wait no longer than 10 days for her new documentation.

Seven weeks later, and with no certificate in sight, Ms McCreath was forced to set off carrying only her current passport, which included a gender marker of “M”.

All went well, until Toronto Pearson international airport, where she had to go through customs before boarding her next airplane, to the United States.

A US Customs agent inspected her passport, where and directed Ms McCreath to ‘Secondary Screening’, where she was photographed and fingerprinted. A further 90 minutes elapsed before anyone else spoke to her: since other individuals were dealt with in the intervening minutes, there is some concern that this was done deliberately in order to ensure she would miss her plane.

There then followed a search of her bags and according to Ms McCreath: “They started asking me all sorts of bizarre personal questions about my sexuality.” They also asked a number of intrusive and personal questions about surgery they assumed she had had, as well as questioning her about her medication and the purpose of a highly intimate device – a dilator – that they discovered in her luggage.

This last line of questioning continued despite the fact that Ms McCreath was carrying with her a doctor’s note which, she explained, “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”.

In the end, Ms McCreath was permitted to continue on her way, paying out an additional $80 for having to change flights. To add insult to injury, it subsequently transpired that had she chosen to do so, she could have obtained a temporary passport from the Canadian Passport Office in the two years prior to her surgery. However, despite several conversations and a visit to the offices of that body, she was at no time informed of this option.

Following so soon after attempts by Canada’s Ministry of Transport to justify similar discriminatory legislation in respect of flying over Canada, this is a stark reminder of what happens when bad rules are allowed to lie on the books.

Spokespersons for that Office told us last week that:

– The no-fly rules were not new: they had originally been implemented in 2007, and were re-issued last summer;

– They were designed with “security” in mind and would help transport officials in determining whether an individual resembled their photographic identity

– They were in line with International Civil Aviation Organisation rules, as well as similar rules enforced by every other government in the world

They declined, however, to answer questions as to how a subjective assessment of gender might help an individual match a face to a photograph: nor would they give any further information as to how this measure would assist with security.

Despite several requests to substantiate their claims in respect of ICAO rulings, they declined to provide any text to corroborate their claims: nor were they prepared to back up their claims that these rules were the same as rules implemented elsewhere in the world.

Spokespersons for both the UK Border Agency and UK Dept of Transport told us that they were not aware of any such regulation being implemented in the UK.

Most chillingly, when asked how it could be possible for an official to determine whether a passenger appears “to be of the gender indicated on the identification he or she presents” – and whether there were any plans to carry out strip searches in this respect, they again declined to respond.

Ms McCreath understands that US officials are allowed to operate on Canadian soil so long as they abide by Canadian Human Rights legislation: if nothing else, the existence of Canada’s no-fly regulations seems likely to be used by US officials as justification for their action in this instance.