Are transgender Canadians being banned from boarding flights?

Changes to Canada's airline screening regulations that took effect last year have recently angered some members of the transgender community and raised questions about whether the new rules could effectively prevent them from boarding planes.

Changes to Canada's airline screening regulations that took effect last year have recently angered some members of the transgender community and raised questions about whether the new rules could effectively prevent them from boarding planes.

Although the amendment to the Identity Screening Regulations, which are part of the Aeronautics Act, came into effect in July 2011, news about it has only recently hit the blogosphere.

"Canadian government bans transgendered from flying!" screamed one blog post, by transgendered marathon runner Jennifer McCreath.

Others appeared in the Montreal Gazette, on, on the Huffington Post and on the site of transgender blogger Christin Milloy. 

The amendment in question spells out airline screening procedures for boarding a flight. The controversial line is one that states an air carrier shall not transport a passenger who "does not appear to be of the gender indicated on the identification he or she presents."

The concern is that transgendered people who live their lives as another sex than the one stated on their passport or other forms of identification will be effectively banned from boarding flights.

Currently, transgendered Canadian citizens can only have their passport changed permanently if they have undergone gender reassignment surgery or can prove that they will be having the operation within a year. The other option is a temporary, two-year passport, which is only issued if the person has proof they will be having reassignment surgery.

Targeting trangender people?

But is the transgendered community being specifically targeted by Transport Canada, as some advocates suggest?

The amended regulations, in particular Section 5, titled "Boarding Gate," actually beefs up the language pertaining to identifying people in general before they board flights.

Concerns are being raised that transgendered people who live their lives as another sex than what's otherwise stated on their passport or other forms of identification will be effectively banned from boarding flights.

The section now states that an air carrier shall screen each passenger by "looking at the passenger, and in particular his or her entire face to determine if he or she appears to be 18 years of age or older."

It goes on to stress the point that air carriers shall also compare the passenger, "in particular his or her entire face against the required identification."

None of that language was in the previous version of the regulations.

The amended regulations also lay out the circumstances under which an air carrier shall not transport a passenger, and it is in this section that the line about gender identification is found.

The section states that an air carrier shall not transport a passenger if they do not "resemble" the photo identification presented, do not appear to be the age indicated on their photo ID or if there's a major discrepancy between the two forms of identification.

Signed document from doctor

However, if a passenger's appearance has changed for medical reasons after the photo on the ID was taken, they will be able to board if they have a document signed by a health-care professional.

In an email to CBC News, Transport Canada said airlines in Canada must have procedures allowing them to identify all passengers by using their official identification issued by a recognized government authority.

"This approach applies to all passengers, regardless of their culture, religion or sexual orientation," Transport Canada said.

Transport Canada said that before the amendment, the regulations did not explicitly require air carriers to compare and check passengers' physical appearance against their identification.   

It also said that it is not aware of any case of a transgendered or transsexual individual in possession of a medical document who has not been permitted to board an airplane since the publication of the regulations. 

The section about gender "does not prevent the transgendered and transsexual community from travelling by air," Transport Canada added.  

"If, for medical reasons, a passenger's facial features do not correspond to the photo on his or her identification, the air carrier may authorize the passenger to board a plane if he or she provides a medical certificate relating to this."  

International issue

The way that countries address transgender identification issues varies widely around the world.

  • Australia — Since September 2011, Australian passports have carried a third gender option, "X".  The X signifies an indeterminate/unspecified/intersex gender identification.  Gender reassignment surgery is not required for someone to change their gender on a passport – they just need a doctor's note.
  • Britain — There has been some discussion among British politicians about the possibility of introducing a gender-free passport. Currently, British citizens can apply to change the gender on their passport after they undergo gender reassignment, or during the process if a doctor certifies that they are living their daily lives in the gender they are transitioning to.
  • South Africa — Under South African law, people can apply for a gender change on their passport if they provide a medical report from a doctor who has helped them undergo major gender alteration.  Actual gender reassignment surgery is not a requirement.
  • The Netherlands — Human Rights Watch criticized The Netherlands in September 2011 for what the group says is an outdated law that forces transgendered people to undergo hormone therapy, surgery and irreversible sterilization before having a gender-change officially recognized. The law, which came into effect in 1985, was seen as progressive at the time.
  • China — In 2009 China drafted rules to regulate sex changes. Part of the process requires local officials to agree to issue new identification showing the change in gender.
  • United States — In July of 2010 the U.S. changed its rules for gender changes on passports. U.S. citizens only need a note from a doctor saying they've undergone clinical treatment for gender transition, and gender reassignment surgery is no longer a requirement.