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Identity

An Airline Refused to Let a Trans Woman Board Her Flight

Ari Bianca Silvera was supposed to be traveling from Scotland to Canada for a wedding, but due to discrepancies between her gender and passport information, Air Transat wouldn't let her fly.

by Diana Tourjée
Jun 29 2016, 7:00pm

Photo by Maa Hoo via Stocksy

On June 25 at the Glasgow Airport, a transgender woman named Ari Bianca Silvera was prevented from boarding a flight bound for Toronto by the Canadian airline Air Transat. According to her account, which she posted on Twitter, Silvera has the right to travel to Canada without obtaining a visa—she has dual citizenship from Italy and Argentina, and while the latter requires a visa for entry into Canada, the former does not. But because her Italian passport is older and lists her gender as male, she says her Italian citizenship was illegally denied by the airline. She waited in the airport for seven hours before leaving, and claims that representatives told her to "travel as a man" because the photo and gender information in her passport valid for Canadian travel represent her identity prior to transition.

This is a reality many transgender people deal with, myself included. Whether we're traveling, waiting at the DMV, or voting, trans people are always aware that we could be denied basic rights because of outdated state information about our identities before transition, and similarly outdated agency policies that do not account for our existence. When you add bureaucratic obstacles to updating those documents, and the ignorance of the employees working on the front lines of these institutions, discrimination—however unintentional—becomes not only common, but likely.

Read more: When You Are Trans and Undocumented, Few People Can Help

For years, Silvera says, she has traveled with both of her passports—her Italian one, which is older and lists her gender as male, as well as her Argentinian one, which is newer and lists her gender as female—as well as an official Argentinian affidavit validating her gender transition, including her name change and gender marker update. The reason why is totally bureaucratic: It can be difficult to update Italian identification documents. Silvera says that the last time she attempted to update her passport at the Italian consulate in Edinburgh, she was "laughed at." Argentina's process for updating passports is much simpler, so Silvera travels with that as well, to act as supportive documentation for the apparent discrepancy on her Italian passport, which should still be valid.

According to Silvera, however, Air Transat told her that she requires a visa to travel as a citizen of Argentina—which would be true, if she weren't also a citizen of Italy. "This decision is illegal under anti-discrimination UK law; it refuses to accept my legal Italian documentation," Silvera wrote, "thus breaking Canada-Italy travel treaties; and it fails to recognise my sworn affidavit and its connection to my Italian passport as valid." It is sadly ironic that this happened in the United Kingdom; in April, the UK released updated advice for LGBT travelers, warning them of the potential risks in venturing overseas due to anti-transgender legislation and attitudes in foreign countries like the US. (When contacted by Broadly, the Edinburgh consulate responded that the Consul-General was not available for comment.)

"My Italian passport and citizenship are real, valid," Silvera wrote. "They represent a legacy, a family, and [a passport] is a legal, binding, valid document." The implications of this incident are grave. As Tom Léger, a publisher at Topside Press and prominent figure in the transgender literary world, wrote on Facebook: "If airlines can now arbitrarily decide which trans people can fly and which can't, we're all in a lot of trouble."

When reached for comment, Air Transat did not respond to Silvera's claims but issued the following statement to Broadly, noting that Silvera will receive a full refund:

It is the mission of all of us at Air Transat to offer our passengers the best possible service in every aspect of their journey. I assure you that Air Transat does not have—nor tolerates—any policies or procedures that are based on discriminatory practices. Canadian immigration law places the burden on air carriers to enforce entry requirements and to ensure that passengers are in possession of proper travel documentation to this end. Therefore, Air Transat has no choice but to comply with all procedures to ensure that passengers have the required documents to enter the destination country. The decision that was taken and explained to Ms Silvera was validated by the Canadian High Commission. The above notwithstanding, we apologise to Ms Silvera for any inconvenience. As a gesture of [sic] and while it remains the passenger's sole responsibility to ensure compliance with requirements of the destination country, we intend to process the full refund of her reservation.

Mina Tolu is a communications officer at Transgender Europe, a trans rights organization based in Berlin that ambitiously envisions a Europe free of anti-trans discrimination. "It is wholly nonsensical that a trans person needs to continuously prove their gender identity," Tolu said in an interview with Broadly. "What Silvera has experienced in this incident is unfortunately still a very common reality for trans persons when accessing goods and services."

Tolu explains that governmental recognition of the identities of transgender people is linked directly to their ability to access and benefit from their rights as citizens. "A lack of these procedures [for updating an old passport] leads to trans people being denied basic rights," Tolu says. "In the European Union, trans people are protected under the Goods & Services Directive. Yet still ignorance, ridicule, and fraud remain common themes faced by trans people."

TGEU advocates for governmental recognition of gender identity based upon self-determination. It is much simpler to transition legally in Argentina because the country allows for self-identification for gender in legal documents. "Unfortunately, in Italy, as in many other countries, this is not the same," Tolu explains. "Until October 2015 trans persons in Italy had to provide proof of sterilization to change their documents."

Silvera's story is one of many "traveling while trans" nightmares come to life, in which trans people are quickly and casually stripped of their rights—and in this case citizenship—by airport security personnel.

Because of Air Transat's refusal to allow Silvera's travel, she says that she has missed out on a wedding she was going to attend with her partner. In the days since, Silvera has posted on Twitter, communicating the inevitable distress of having her rights so easily revoked. She has not responded to Broadly's request for comment, but earlier today, she wrote: "It's hard to be motivated to go for a run when a major incident triggered depression & dysphoria, & you don't want to be seen in public."