Avery Edison on Toronto, travelling while trans* and how things can get complicated

If you love Toronto like I love Toronto, you’ll know why I broke the law to stay there. I’d been living in the city for two years on a student visa, and when that was close to expiring I extended it on a visitor’s visa. When that, too expired, I just… stayed. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t think I’d get another visa extension, but I wasn’t ready to vacate the place I’d called home for close to three years—three important years. I’d lived in Toronto when I was figuring out who I really was, and it felt like a part of myself was tied to the city.

I came to terms with the idea of moving back home eventually, and left in September 2013 after staying eight months longer than I should have. That was my crime, my breaking of the visa contract. I naively thought it wouldn’t be that big a deal if I tried to return, if I wanted to visit my girlfriend, my friends, and the town in which I’d made a home. Mostly, I didn’t want it to be a big deal, so I didn’t allow myself to think about the thing I’d done wrong. It was wrong, I know, but I tried to act like I was just another person entering the country on the eleventh of last month.

As it turned out, I wasn’t just another person. At first I was a suspicious case and within a short amount of time I was Avery Edison, the transgender woman who made headlines when she was detained in a men’s prison after being denied entry at Toronto Pearson Airport. Any naivety I had was quickly jettisoned when I Googled the name of the facility I’d been nonchalantly told I was being sent to—Maplehurst—and learned that it was a prison facility for men. The broad strokes of my story are already out there. You might have already read about it: how I waited for close to twelve hours in the customs and immigration area at the airport as officers did their job and interrogated me, went through my luggage, took apart every piece of personal documentation I had, and decided that I was not credible as somebody who was going to leave in three weeks on the non-refundable ticket I’d brought with me.

You might have seen the tweets I sent out at the time, letting them know what was happening, thinking that I’d be able to let my friends get a glimpse into the experience of being denied entry and sent back home. At the time, that’s the worst I thought would happen—that I’d get sent back to England. I thought just I was making a few jokes to pass the time before I hopped on a plane and returned to London. As you might have read in blogs or newspapers, the situation quickly became muddier. I was told that the supervisor to whom my case had been referred was passing it along, sending me to a hearing to determine my eligibility for entry. She told me that she had the power to release me, pending the hearing, or hold me in an immigration detention centre. She chose the latter because, according to her, it would get the hearing scheduled quicker.

You might have been outraged, as many were, that I was offered the option to go home, and that I refused, preferring to be detained. The real situation was, again, more complicated. I could have flown out that night, been back in the UK the next afternoon, relatively hassle-free, if I was able to buy a last-minute, $2000 flight on another airline, since the one I’d flown in on wouldn’t be making a return trip until days later. I didn’t have that kind of money, so I didn’t really have a choice. Besides, I thought, it’d be nice to be able to see my girlfriend, albeit in the visitors’ room of the detention centre.

And then, as you know, the situation got more complicated.

I’m a transgender woman. It’s not a secret; I’m very public about my experiences. I talk about being trans in my stand-up comedy, I write about it on the internet, and I even make semi-regular announcements on my Twitter to let any new followers who aren’t in the know realize that they care, in a small way, about a transgender person. I think it’s important to be out in terms of advocacy, and I think it’s important to be transparent when dealing with bureaucracy. Too much can go wrong if someone feels surprised by my gender identity, especially with the tools of government behind them, so I’d been upfront the entire time I was being denied entry. I told the customs officers that the “F” on my passport did not mean that I’d had reassignment surgery, that I still had male genitalia. And things got more complicated again.

Now my tweets started reflecting confusion—my confusion as my situation became less clear, and the officers’ confusion as they tried to work out what to do with me. I have a suicide attempt in my history, something they could see because Toronto police had helped me get to the hospital, and that made things even more complicated. I would need to be detained under suicide watch, but the co-ed immigration detention centre wasn’t set up for that. So they’d need to send me to a prison. But which one?

I can’t know the thought processes of the customs officials I dealt with that night. But I think they chose what was, for them, the easiest option. They sent me to a male facility, and told me that once I was there I’d be assessed by a nurse and placed in a male cell or moved to the female facilities. Maybe they truly thought that’s what would happen, or maybe they just told me that to calm me down until I was off their hands. As it was, as soon as I entered that male prison, I was there for the night. I was placed in solitary in a row of men who hollered and banged on their doors and made it hard to sleep. I was referred to by prison guards as “Sir”, and put in men’s clothes. I got that visit with my girlfriend, communicating through glass wearing an orange jumpsuit and a sleepless night on my face.

While I was in prison, those tweets I’d sent earlier had picked up steam, had been replied to and retweeted and sent around the world. My case had gotten attention, and my girlfriend worked tirelessly to make that attention mean something. I was moved to the women’s facility, and a few days later I had a detention hearing in which I was told I’d be allowed to go back to England. I was lucky in that I was able to see my girlfriend for a few minutes at the airport, able to hug her, and thank her. And then I was escorted to the plane. They kept my phone from me until I embarked, apparently worried I’d tweet again if given the chance. They were probably right.

When I came home, I was overwhelmed. I tried to process the experience while at the same time fielding requests for interviews and answering emails from concerned friends and strangers. I tried to get back a sense of normalcy, but every time I closed my eyes I saw the walls of my cells, or heard the unending cacophony of the men’s solitary wing. It’s been two weeks since I got back home. Some memories are starting to fade, to hurt less. I’m still sorting out my feelings, separating out the fear, sadness, anger, embarrassment, relief…

I know that I made a huge mistake. I know that this whole terrible experience started with me breaking an agreement. I know that the situation became more complicated through nobody’s fault but my own; that the lack of a stable life in England meant it wasn’t believable that I’d return there; that my suicidal history took the standard detention centre off the table; that my gender identity muddied things even further. I would apologise, if I knew who to apologise to, or if I thought it would mean anything.

There was a point in this whole saga when I started laughing. I mean, it’s kind of ridiculous how many things went wrong because of how convoluted my personal history is. I was denied entry because I wasn’t credible as someone who’d be leaving, but I think the real truth behind this entire nightmare is because I’m not credible as a person. I’m twenty-six in April, an adult by anyone’s standards, but I don’t have anything about my life even close to figured out. Is it an indictment of my generation’s supposed solipsism that the thing I take away from this traumatic experience is that I need to get my life together? Maybe. But it’s better than not taking anything away from it at all. I have to carry the weight of this incident for the rest of life, so I might as well use it as ballast for some personal growth.

So what of Toronto? Do I still love it the way I did when I decided to break the rules and stay when I shouldn’t have? Or have my feelings about the city been forever marred by the treatment I received? It would be easy to associate the mental and physical suffering I went through with Toronto, with my efforts to get back there. But instead, I think of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of Torontonians who supported me when I was detained. Everyone who retweeted me, or emailed me, or wrote a story about me, or contacted their MP or councilor. Everyone who made sure that I was being helped, that I knew that the city cared about me the way I cared about it.

The city didn’t give up on me, so I’m not giving up on it. And if you love Toronto like I love Toronto, you know exactly why.


  1. Dinahkins
    March 3, 2014

    aedison shedoesthecity Great writing, thank you for sharing. I think you are very credible and very articulate. Best wishes.

  2. KariDru
    March 3, 2014

    aedison Please don’t own the “not credible” thing. You’ve done nothing but tell the truth this whole time, even when it is unflattering.

  3. March 9, 2014

    @KariDru aedison  She’s absolutely right. Edison has been nothing but transparent and I hope one day, we both get to kick it in Canada. 🙂

  4. Janrainia
    March 10, 2014

    JessicaSideways aedison  She’s been not transparent from teh start. If she overstayed for eight months she could have, should have, contacted the high commission either before leaving or when she returned to England. How is she transparent When she tries to reenter the country without sortin this issue out at the embassy first?

  5. March 10, 2014

    Janrainia JessicaSideways aedison  Well, she was very open and upfront with CBSA at the airport. Some people don’t even know all the details about getting a visa.

  6. Janrainia
    March 10, 2014

    JessicaSideways Janrainia aedison  Indeed, some people don’t even know English. Your point here is what, exactly?

  7. March 10, 2014

    Janrainia JessicaSideways aedison  I’m sorry, but you are wrong and here is why: even though there is a lot of information on the CIC website, if you are just going to another country, do you even think about going to the CIC/embassy website if you are just going for a visit? Especially if you are entitled to visa-free travel to the other country? British subjects are not required to get a visa to visit Canada normally, so there would have been no need for her to interact with the embassy in London prior to departure.

    Additionally, there are some issues that are harder to sort out. For example, was she issued with a Departure Order, an exclusion order or a deportation order (yes, the three are very different things)?

  8. Janrainia
    March 10, 2014

    JessicaSideways Janrainia aedison  Someone who has oversatyed their Visa by EIGHT ONTHS is NOT entitled to Via Free Travel.

  9. lglxy
    March 4, 2014

    While, you did make a mistake don’t completely blame yourself.  The immigration/custom system is extremely arbitrary and can allow or deny entry to anyone at any given time. It is outdated and is set up for people living stationary lives which in fact most people do not nor have they ever. Play their game to get where and what you want but never never allow them to make you feel like the life you live is somehow not credible. You are an adult when you decide you are an adult  not when Border and Immigration services believes you have a good enough story or documentation to say you are.

  10. AndrewHH
    March 4, 2014

    You overstayed a visa by EIGHT months. I realize that you’re saying “I take the blame for this” now, but the proper way to get this sorted out would have been at the Canadian High Commission. You’re an adult by anyones standards and those are the rules, same for Mexicans, Indians, British Citizens and even trans people.

  11. M1962
    March 4, 2014

    you broke the law deal with it. Someone made a mistake because you still have male genital.
    I would have made the same assumption. it time for you to ride off in to the sunset go on with your life and stop making this a bigger issue then it was.

  12. freezeflameinc
    March 5, 2014

    Just immigrate, if you want to be here that bad.. What’s the deal?  You did it wrong the first time, now do it properly, get the application and go through the process.  I’m sure as a citizen of the UK/England, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal given the relationship Canada and England have.  In that three years you spent here, you could have started the process and probably been a permanent resident by now… IF you hadn’t told them about your gender as well, it may have been left alone, sometimes keeping your mouth shut can work wonders… Good luck

  13. March 9, 2014

    freezeflameinc  “Just immigrate”. That just shows that you do not know what the process is like. There is no “Just immigrate”, you have to qualify in some form or fashion. You either (a) have to be married, (b) have a highly skilled job or (c) have a lot of money. As a US Citizen, I know that I can come to Canada to work without having to get a Labour Market Opinion because I am in one of the 60-something NAFTA-eligible professions. But not everyone is as fortunate.

  14. Janrainia
    March 10, 2014

    as a British citizen aevery has a better chance than you. As a white EU citizen with a high education, I have a a good chance as well , if I file to immigrate to Canada from Europe In fact, I have legally lived in four different countries as a permanent resident and am only a few years shy past 40. It’s not that difficult if you follow the rules from the start. her eight month overstay will now make a lot of trouble for her if she tries now. And since she’s a woman according to her passport now, she can’t marry her girlfriend and apply via spouse, which could have been an option prior to transition. freezeflameinc

  15. March 10, 2014

    Janrainia freezeflameinc  Actually, believe it or not, no she does not. There are no special programmes for british subjects, according to the data available on the CIC website. You should really review the documentation on CIC’s website.

    And yes, she can marry her girlfriend and immigrate that way, as same-sex marriage is legal in Canada (which can be verified by the information on the CIC website).

  16. Janrainia
    March 10, 2014

    JessicaSideways Janrainia freezeflameinc  So, your point is, she could have been staying legally in canada and not ended up in this mess?
    Because my point is the same, and thaT this has nothing to do with traveling while trans.

    Then we’re in agreement.

  17. March 10, 2014

    Janrainia JessicaSideways freezeflameinc  We can’t change what happened in the past. Even if she has an exclusion order against her, she shouldn’t be sent to a men’s prison – that’s a violation of her rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That is where CBSA did wrong.

  18. freezeflameinc
    March 10, 2014


  19. freezeflameinc
    March 10, 2014

    JessicaSideways Janrainia  caps lock is acting up

  20. freezeflameinc
    March 10, 2014

    JessicaSideways Janrainia Going the other way. I was accepted to attend a school in Scotland years ago.  I both had to apply for a student visa as well as a travel visa.

  21. Janrainia
    March 10, 2014

    JessicaSideways freezeflameinc  Correction, Legal resident – not “permanent”, after a few years however I could in some countrries apply for that too.

  22. March 10, 2014

    Janrainia JessicaSideways freezeflameinc  In Canada, it’s not just about how long you’ve lived there (though it does factor in) but also your language skills, what connections you have, How skilled your position is, If you have earned a degree at a Canadian College or University…

  23. freezeflameinc
    March 10, 2014

    JessicaSideways freezeflameinc  I understand it’s a much longer process than Just do it, but with all the time she spent here, I am kind of surprised that she never would have looked it up and/or ever tried, other than her extensions… many people that are here in Canada are here to take advantage, and try to get around the legal processes, by falsely claiming something else, only for it catch up to them later… my wife’s ex came to Canada as a refuge about 12 years ago, obtained fake documents and works under the table.. hates Canada and everything we stand for, but continues to abuse to the health care system…. What Canada promises and advertises are and entirely different thing from the reality some legal immigrants come to realize when they arrive.  Many times a qualified person will have to entirely re-do all their Post-secondary education

  24. Janrainia
    March 5, 2014

    This has very little to do with traveling while trans* and a lot to do with “naive” law breaking.

    I don’t quite understand why you never filed for permanent residency status if you love Toronto so, and have someone you love living in Toronto. Canada is one of easiest countries in the world to immigrate to, quite generous to everyone and simple to apply. It’s quite possible you could even attain this status by getting married, if you and your girlfriend are ready for that commitment.

  25. March 9, 2014

    Janrainia  Maybe because it’s incredibly difficult to become a permanent resident? I have been trying for seven plus years now and I still haven’t found a way to make it happen.

  26. Janrainia
    March 10, 2014

    JessicaSideways Janrainia  Try getting a job?

  27. March 10, 2014

    Janrainia JessicaSideways  In order to get a job in Canada as a foreigner, you need your employer to seek out a labour market opinion which means that they tried to hire Canadians and Permanent residents first. Plus, in order to get permanent residency from that, you need a job that is in the 0, A or B lists of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

    Now, the good news is that I am almost NAFTA eligible to come to Canada for my profession (graphic/Web Designer), the only thing I need is another couple years of professional experience. However, there are no such agreements for UK nationals. Avery would not qualify under the existing trade agreements (General Agreement on Trade in Service, Canada-Columbia FTA, Canada-Peru FTA, Canada-Chile FTA or NAFTA).

  28. March 17, 2014

    I liked it when you’re being honest. Just be careful wherever your feet might take you. Yes, Canada is a great place.

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