Not keen on airport security? Try flying while trans.
As if life - and the new airport X-ray scanners - didn't pose enough barriers for many transgendered people, Transport Canada has thrown another hurdle into the mix.
A quiet regulatory change while Parliament was on summer break last year instructs boarding gate officials to confirm that a traveller's appearance matches the gender on their passport, and says they can keep a passenger from boarding if it doesn't.
While the change may seem benign, it's given some trans people a huge amount of travel anxiety - and sheds light on an ongoing problem with the way trans people are documented.
In Ontario, people who change gender can have the sex listed on their driver's licence changed with a note from their doctor, a progressive policy put in place in 2005 after a human rights complaint. But to alter their passport, and many other legal and government documents, they must first change their birth certificate, and that can only be done after sex reassignment surgery, explains Susan Gapka, chair of the Trans Health Lobby Group.
That means people who assume a different gender without having surgery are out of luck: almost 30 per cent of trans-identified Ontarians, according to a 2010 Trans PULSE Project report produced for the provincial government. Further, a significant number of surgeries sought by trans people, such as chest reconstruction, don't fall under the government's requirements for changing a birth certificate's sex.
Also affected are people on often lengthy waiting lists for sex-change surgery. However, if surgery is scheduled within a year, a request can be made to change the passport designation early, says Gapka.
"What we have here is a system where a birth certificate may say one thing and a driver's licence something else," she says, noting that mismatched documents can cause suspicion or negative judgment from airport employees. "As a trans person, I'm always worried about how I'm going to be treated. Whenever I show my identification, I'm always worried there will be an incident."
Since news of the regulation surfaced in late January, there's been talk in Parliament about having gender removed from the equation. A motion to eliminate "severe discrimination against transgender and transsexual Canadians" by MP Olivia Chow, NDP transport critic, will come to a vote in the House's Transport Committee today (Thursday, February 9).
According to Maryse Durette, a senior adviser at Transport Canada, no trans people have been barred from boarding planes since the regulations went into effect in July.
New regulations, she says, were brought in in response to a YouTube video showing veiled women boarding a plane without being required to show their faces. They are intended to ensure that passengers are carrying their own documents, she stresses, noting that the regulations ask gate workers to check a passenger's gender but don't strictly prohibit them from allowing someone with a mismatch onto a plane.
"As age, gender or facial characteristics could vary from that on the passenger's identification for a number of reasons, airlines have discretion to resolve any apparent discrepancies when comparing passengers with their identification," she tells NOW in a prepared statement.
Durette's response differs from what she said last week when she noted the regulations brought Canada up to international standards. In fact, the International Civil Aviation Organization guidelines allow for a third gender, "unspecified," which is not part of the latest update to Canada's regulations.
Australia has been using an indeterminate/unspecified/intersex option on passports since last September. It's a designation Proud-FM host Danielle Loncar would like to see here.
"Gender is not just black-and-white," says Loncar. "What about people who are very androgynous, or women with a thyroid condition who sprout facial hair? You're basically at the mercy of a total stranger. If he or she is having a bad day or has any type of prejudice, fasten your seat belt."
But whether the regulation is followed or not doesn't change the fact that it's entrenched discrimination. Says London human rights lawyer N. Nicole Nussbaum, who's chronicled her own transition, "In Ontario and other provinces and countries, people can change their legal name at any time and for any reason, excepting a fraudulent reason, which potentially makes for a much greater challenge to identification than a change of sex/gender designation."
Speaking to NOW from New Jersey where she's just flown without incident, Christin Milloy, who writes a blog on trans issues, says many trans people "feel the need to carry a letter from their doctor everywhere they go, just in case they need it to explain themselves. I think that's terrible, having to carry papers like that, just to justify your existence."