As if the world needed a timely reminder of why independent social media retains paramount importance, comedienne Avery Edison was taken into custody by Canadian authorities at Toronto Pearson International Airport and drawn into the maw of impersonally exercised state power.
And yet, that power was also, on another level, executed in an avowedly personal way.
As UK citizen who had overstayed her Canadian student visa on her previous visit, she was detained; but because she was a trans woman the terms of that detention gained painfully personal inflections. She was misgendered over and over by staff, and treated to debates and arguments about the true significance of her genitalia as if she were an abstraction in a room full of uniformed philosophers, all as they tried to figure out whether to send her to a men’s or women’s facility for the duration of her detention.
It is the latter point that is of some significance here, and a reminder of why things like misgendering matter. Many cisgender people still see misgendering as an offence to one’s feelings and nothing more, and this conceit makes it easier to believe that gendering someone appropriately is a reward cookie that can be taken away at will—doled out when you approve of a trans person’s behaviour, taken away when you think they have been naughty (as one might think of, say, a trans woman in immigration detention).
But this is about considerably more than hurt feelings, and it always has been. Misgendering is, empirically, the spearpoint of material harm, as Edison’s case clearly demonstrates: because her gender was up for debate, she was sent to a men’s prison where she was at great risk of suffering terrible violence, a fact acknowledged by the prison officials themselves:
.@aedison Was promised that she would not be put in a cell, “because she’ll get beat up or worse.” Yeah, thats only her nightmare, she knows
— rahrah (@rahrahtempleton) February 11, 2014
The nightmare that Edison’s girlfriend alludes to here is one that I and many other trans women share.
I love flying; I may even love travel more than life itself. For a Puerto Rican girl whose world was circumscribed by a few blocks in the South Bronx while growing up, being able to travel far and wide as an adult has been a joy and a privilege. I even found chosen family in Canada; Toronto is my beloved second home. But beneath the glow of all this enthusiasm for taking flight lies the nightmare of detention, of rough hands stealing away my freedom and thrusting me into the Kafkaesque vortex of the prison industrial complex. It’s why no matter how many smiles I may receive from TSA, CATSA, or Customs officials, I nevertheless fear that one day they will turn into scowls, or lascivious Cheshire grins, as they discover that one fact about my medical history that could not only keep me off the plane, but take me off the radar of my loved ones. Being thrown into a men’s prison for no reason other than the fact that the officers don’t know what to do with me remains a nightmare that attends my travel.
And like Avery Edison, all my identification, including my passport, says “F.”
The emollient approach to these problems—mandating education, providing extensive transgender awareness training, enshrining trans rights as a civil rights priority—retains its importance, of course. But much remains to be said about what forthright and unapologetic protest did for Ms. Edison as well. Whatever serendipitous oversight allowed Edison to keep her phone facilitated a flash movement online that not only made many English-speaking trans people and allies aware of her plight, but also caught the attention of the Canadian press which was—stunningly—quite humanising in their coverage of her. Toronto Life, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and even, most surprising to me, the relatively conservative National Post, all spoke out on Edison’s behalf and called attention to the injustice of what was happening, framing it as an issue of urgent concern and obvious illiberalism. Several Members of Parliament also got involved.
But that did not all happen spontaneously. It was Avery Edison’s own tweets, as well as the #FreeAvery hashtag that followed that put this on the agenda of those in Canada’s mainstream press and political institutions (be advised, some transphobes have latched onto the hashtag, however). It is a testament to the power of impromptu online organising, and also a chilling reminder of what happens to those who are unable to summon such powerful flash movements.
Writing about Edison’s case and many others that put the lie to the West’s proud mythology of LGBT tolerance, the New Statesman’s Laurie Penny reminds us:
“Britain likes to think of itself as a tolerant place, but the Border Agency has been accused of almost “systematic homophobia” by the gay rights group Stonewall. Leaked Home Office documents show bisexual asylum seekers being asked degrading questions during hours of interrogation by Home Office officials – questions that included: “What is it about men’s backsides that attracts you?””
The great nightmare of the monster state hounds those at the margins—or the borders. Edison’s struggle with clueless Canadian officials is a wailing claxon of a reminder that for all the cultural change we have effected in the last few years, there are some institutions that have been alarmingly impervious to progress. Policing remains laggard (Philadelphia’s Police Department is revising its transgender policies only this year), but the situation is absolutely dire when it comes to border policing, customs, and prisons. These shadowy realms, normally far from the clarifying light of public scrutiny, and further shrouded by the all too pervasive punishment ethic that allows too many to passively believe all abuses in such places are deserved, also remain crucial battlegrounds for the rights of trans women athwart the patriarchal state.
They remain redoubtable bastions of the worst masculinist impulses, manifested as brick and mortar institutions, chain linked fences, barbed wire, badges, and full body scans.
Avery Edison, thankfully, gets to go home. Released on February 12th after her immigration hearing, she returned to London safe and sound. But as is often the case with incidents like this, it was never just about one person. There are many others who do not get to go home, caught in the nebulous netherspace of indignity that still obtains in too many detention centres worldwide, in too many prisons, and in the unfeeling grip of too many police officers and prison guards. Edison’s experience reminded us of something—a whole institution and social structure—the invisible skeleton of the patriarchal state that we all too often look away from.
Prison remains, unchecked police power remains, and it is only through using the instruments of our collective, democratic power to challenge the abuses those institutions perpetrate that we can truly prevent another case like Avery Edison’s from occurring.