Flying While Transgender

transgender airplane

transgender airplane

Last week, the transgender blogosphere exploded in response to the July 29, 2011 changes to the Canadian Identity Screening Regulations. The focus of this attention was section 5.2 (1) of the regulation, which reads: “An air carrier shall not transport a passenger if […] (c) the passenger does not appear to be of the gender indicated on the identification he or she presents.” The regulation is notable for two reasons: first, many Canadians have finally found something about airport security that breaks through the fabled ‘mildly annoying’ barrier, and; second, it absolutely smacks of social conservatism. Many are calling the regulation out and out discrimination against transgendered individuals (a sentiment held by trans activist Christin Milloy).

Of course, not everyone agrees with this. An acquaintance of mine recently attempted to defend the change, claiming that it was designed to combat an increase in passport and identity fraud, and furthermore, that calling the regulation discriminatory is an overreaction. I am willing to concede that this is probably not a convoluted, conservative conspiracy to systematically discriminate against transgender people. However, it is sign of either gross negligence or an entire disregard for the issues that trans people face every day.

First, I challenge anyone to justify the necessity of visually confirming an individual’s apparent gender with a letter on a passport. If someone is attempting to board a flight with fraudulent documentation, there are many other fields on a passport that will set alarm bells ringing (false name, false or doctored photo, incorrect age, invalid passport number, and on and on).

Second, lawmakers are, or ought to be (ignorance is no excuse) aware of the legal restrictions involved with changing one’s gender identifier on a passport. Most commonly, a signed letter is required confirming that the person has received SRS (sex reassignment surgery). Not only are the requirements for SRS quite stringent, but there are a large number of trans people who do not want SRS, and still others who identify as neither gender.

Besides all of these very real concerns, there is the problem of the actual visual confirmation itself. The regulation is essentially asking a CATSA employee to decide what an ‘M’ or an ‘F’ ought to look like. Should Janet be barred from her flight if she likes to dress as a lumber jack? All that this sort of check will accomplish is to reinforce an already prevalent and problematic gender binary.

There is a sub-clause in the regulation that allows for exceptions to be made if a person does not match their identifier, yet has a doctor’s letter, identifying them as a trans person. This isn’t much of a solution however, as it assumes trans individuals have the time and foresight to obtain a letter prior to travel – something not required of any other minority in Canada. Moreover, some trans people do not seek consultation from a medical professional during or after their transition.

A recent Xtra article cites a Transport Canada representative as saying “the regulations are the same as before, since they are those of the International Civil Aviation Organization that are in place in all countries”. This statement is both interesting and false, as the ICAO calls for participating countries’ passports to have M, F or X gender designation options [ICAO document **PDF file]. Hmm, I wonder why I failed to notice the X option while filling out my passport application?

To add insult to injury, the Xtra article goes on to note that while the oppositon was questioning the regulation, Conservative MPs could be heard snickering in the background.

To date, I am not aware of any trans person that has been barred from their flight due to section 5.2 (1) (c). However, what the regulation does or does not do in practice is not the issue. There is no distinction drawn between the gender-nonconformance of a trans person and the gender-non-conformance of someone trying to get away with something. In essence it is the nonconformity itself that may be punished. That the Canadian government deems it acceptable to amend a regulation in such a way as to allow for potential discrimination, is entirely unconscionable.

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