Transgender advocates call out WestJet for forcing passengers to identify as male or female
Some travellers want to use 'X' as a gender when booking, as allowed on Canadian passports
Transgender advocates across Canada are calling out national airline WestJet for not allowing people to choose X as a gender, instead of male or female, when booking flights.
They say WestJet is violating their human rights.
"It is a legal gender marker in our laws, it's a violation of the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms]," said Iz Lloyd, a non-binary person from Halifax who was recently denied boarding a WestJet flight until they conceded to identifying as their sex assigned at birth.
Lloyd, who uses the pronoun they, said their passport has an X instead of male or female.
"It's forcing people to travel and break rules."
Upon initially booking a series of WestJet flights last week, Lloyd noticed only male or female options were provided under gender.
Lloyd picked one and assumed it could be simple to change at the airport, but quickly found out it would be anything but easy. WestJet staff would not let Lloyd board without using one of those two options.
"They told me straight up that the reason I was being flagged was because I was trans. That was the only reason."
Lloyd says one employee referred to them by the wrong gender multiple times and pushed back in an argumentative manner even after Lloyd supplied appropriate documents that listed their gender marker as X.
Lloyd phoned WestJet at the end the trip and was told there was nothing the airline could do aside from offering about 50 WestJet dollars. After the initial call, Lloyd repeatedly contacted WestJet by phone to speak to someone to resolve the issue but Lloyd says the airline did not call them back.
WestJet told CBC via email Wednesday that several unexpected roadblocks with their third-party booking agencies delayed implementing the X marker.
"At WestJet, it is our commitment to ensure our guests have an equitable travel experience and we owe a further explanation and apology regarding our progress on adding non-binary options to our booking and check-in systems," said Denise Kenny, a media representative for WestJet.
Air Canada allows the choice "other" in addition to male and female on its booking site. Some trans advocates say they would prefer to see X instead.
After doing some digging online, Lloyd discovered WestJet had said in the past that gender is needed to determine weight and balance requirements on flights and that Transport Canada does not recognize X, which is not currently the case.
Sau Sau Liu, senior communications adviser for Transport Canada, said in 2019 the department updated its advisory circular, a document used to advise Canadian air operators, to use a male weight for X-gendered people.
Transport Canada told CBC via email that weight and balance have a direct effect on the stability and performance of the aircraft.
"If a plane is too heavy, it may never get off the ground. If it's out of balance, it may be uncontrollable when it does take flight," said Liu.
"This is why pilots and operators need to conduct a weight and balance analysis prior to takeoff accounting for passengers, baggage, cargo and fuel, for example, to ensure the aircraft's centre of gravity falls under the safe range."
Feeling frustrated and hurt after their experience, Lloyd took to social media app TikTok.
To their surprise the post exploded, reaching more than 50,000 views and receiving more than 800 comments.
Lloyd says the experience connected them with other trans people across Canada who have had similar issues with WestJet. Many say they feared speaking out.
"[WestJet is] being constantly tagged and called out on this, with multiple people coming forward saying, 'This is why I'm afraid to fly,'" said Lloyd.
One of those people is a policy analyst and fellow trans person named Mattie McMillan. She identifies as both she and they and uses the X marker.
McMillan says she deals with this issue every time she flies with WestJet for work.
"X-marker Canadians such as myself, people who go through the legal processes to get the X identifier, have to go through a lot of gates only to have the big fellas not comply with the law, not have to comply with Canadian values."
She says at this point she avoids flying whenever possible to avoid the difficulties that come with "flying WestJet and being trans."
"There's been a lot of tears, it's rough to put in a full day [of work], and then have to put in a full day [at the airport] so that you can participate at the same level as your peers."
McMillan has been fighting with WestJet over the issue for the past three years and, with the help of other community members, has recently sent WestJet a call-to-action proposal.
She's also been in contact with the airline's vice-president of marketing and communications, Richard Bartrem, and was told he would raise the issue with the airline's upper management.
However, she says if no action is taken by the end of June, advocates will be pursuing the issue further, potentially in court.
"We have a couple of law firms offering their services looking at either class [action] sort of situation, but any sort of way ... that each party can hold their head high on an airplane, that's what we're driving towards."
Lloyd says they hope to see change soon.
"I don't want to fight all the time, I would like to just be able to exist, but I also know I need to leave a world for other trans people and trans kids so that they're not afraid," said Lloyd.
"I want the Canadian government to do better," said Lloyd, adding it should require businesses to recognize gender X.