Why putting a trans woman in a men’s jail makes no sense

The case of Avery Edison, placed in a men’s prison in Canada, and Piers Morgan’s interview with Janet Mock shows how trans people are finding their voice

Why putting a trans woman in a men’s jail makes no sense
14 February 2014

Canadian immigration officials caused outrage earlier this week when they placed a woman in a men’s prison. When stated that way, their action is simply incomprehensible. Yet that is what Avery Edison is – a woman. Her British passport confirmed that fact.

Last week TV chat show host Piers Morgan asked a woman about when she decided to change her name and about intimate surgeries. In that television interview, he repeatedly referred to her as becoming a woman, but not in the Simone de Beauvoir way. Lest Piers takes offence again, it’s worth pointing out his interview of Janet Mock simply followed a standard media narrative, supportive in bits, sadly stereotypical in others.

Somehow, adding trans as a descriptor seems to make these actions into a matter of debate. One Toronto paper even had a poll on whether it was right to put Edison into a men’s prison, as if her identity was up for grabs.

But trans is simply that – a descriptor. It doesn’t completely define anyone. After all, Edison has many other adjectives that could be used to describe her – dark-haired, British, white. But it’s the trans descriptor alone that seems to add some credence to the bone-headed imprisonment policy, and insensitive questions on major television shows.

We see this in other areas too:

  • In the US, the concept of ‘trans panic’ as a defense for murder is not unknown.
  • In the UK, which is better than most, trans people have additional requirements to ‘prove’ they are who they say they are. Just today I read a report from someone who had been recently refused treatment by a Gender Identity Clinic because the medic wasn’t convinced the person was ‘trans enough’.
  • In Ireland the state continues to ignore that the gender assigned at birth might sometimes be wrong.
  • Worldwide, television comedies use trans people as the targets of jokes, rather than allowing viewers to actually engage with trans characters. Television documentaries and chat shows make trans people the objects of inspection, rather like animals in a zoo. It’s as if simply being trans makes someone less than human.

‘Ah’, some people go, ‘but Edison still had male genitalia’. In one simple statement, one’s gender and assumed behavior is reduced to your genitals – a determinism that feminists have fought for years. The reasoning seems to be that if you have a penis, you must automatically be predatory – an assumption I imagine most guys would find hugely offensive.

This line of reasoning also displays a very poor understanding of what years of female hormones generally do to male genitalia, let alone immediately typecasting Edison in a particularly horrific way. It perpetuates the ‘trans as deceiver’ trope.

The whole picture demonstrates a problematic and communal mindset. It should not be acceptable to ask questions or demand compliance with procedures that would cause offence to anyone else. If someone says they’re a woman and have legal documentation that confirms that, why on earth is acceptable for you to unilaterally overrule that? It’s where interest transmutes into invasion, where difference deteriorates into discrimination.

Trans people grow up in a culture which repeatedly tells us we must be mistaken when we say who we are, that it’s somehow shameful, that expressing ourselves will rock our society to the core.

Trans people cause problems for bureaucracy, so trans people are dehumanized so the system can continue to work. People are quick to judge and slow to listen. Suppression of trans people becomes the norm. Frequently compliance is grudgingly given because continual conflict is too draining.

Fortunately there are signs of change. The internet has allowed trans people to network, to share information and to co-ordinate. Expressions of outrage following the Mock interviews and the Edison episode are engaging with a wider audience. Fortunately too, Edison has now been moved to the neighboring women’s jail.

But society’s understanding is low, very low indeed, and it’s often difficult to for trans people to express the nuance which is sometimes necessary. For example, there’s a world of difference between saying Mock was a boy, and saying society assumed Mock was a boy.

It’s great people want to become allies, but that cannot be allowed to silence this misunderstood minority again. It’s time for society to actually listen to this community that is rapidly finding its own voices.

My first tip? Trans people are people first, and trans second… or third… or fifth.



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