Trans photographer alleges mistreatment at Canada-US border
'Ten border guards standing around reading about my really graphic gay sex? It's really invasive'
Julian is upset because 10 American border guards read his diary.
And then they banned him from the country.
Julian, who asked that Xtra use only his first name, is a Montreal-based photographer and hairdresser who visited friends in Vancouver in January. He had a ticket to fly back to Montreal, via Seattle, so he decided to get a "rideshare" — the internet's fusion of carpooling and hitchhiking. Julian and the driver made it to the border, handed the guard their passports and faced the regular spate of questions.
The guard seemed all set to wave them through, says Julian, but then the driver did something to give the border agent pause — he referred to Julian as "he."
Julian, who is trans, presents as a male but has yet to go through the arduous process required to compel the Canadian government to change the gender listed on his passport. While Ottawa has recently signalled its willingness to make the process more accessible, trans people cannot currently change the gender on their passport unless they undergo sex reassignment surgery. Certain provinces have improved that process, allowing trans people to more easily change their gender on their birth certificates — which helps them make the same alteration on their passport.
So when the driver used a male pronoun, the border guard got confused.
"He looks at the passport, looks at me, looks back at the passport," Julian says. The two were sent for secondary inspection.
Julian and the driver sat for hours as border guards riffled through their belongings. The American agents produced an assortment of hairdressing tools from Julian's bag. They accused Julian of coming into the United States to work — something strictly prohibited without the proper visa — which he denied. He'd be in America for less than a day, he told them, and produced the plane ticket.
The agents continued digging. At one point, Julian says, a group of them huddled around one of his bags. A few minutes later, one agent approached him. "You wrote in your journal that you consumed an illegal drug," Julian recalls the guard telling him.
Julian was taken aback. He asked if that was a crime and they informed him that it was. He was fingerprinted and taken into a room for questioning. At this point he’d been there for hours. His driving companion had left, leaving him stranded.
Julian picked a story — the entry in his diary was pure fiction and he had never consumed an illegal drug in his life.
A guard listened to that explanation and informed Julian that "fraud or misrepresentation of the truth" carried with it a permanent ban from the United States. Julian recanted.
Yes, I've smoked pot before, he admitted.
Julian says he was then required to sign a statement to that effect and told that he couldn't ever return to the United States without a waiver — one that, after fees, could run $1,200 — and that he would have to walk back across the border and return to Canada.
Julian asked about his flight. The one he was supposed to be on in a few hours.
"Not my problem," the guard told him.
Julian says he didn't see this as a by-the-book process. "I feel like you're discriminating against me because of the interaction with the border guard from before, who evidently had a problem with my gender," Julian told them.
The Canadian government has been looking into making changes to avoid the sort of discrimination that Julian says he faced. La Presse has reported that Passport Canada is reviewing a policy to allow Canadians to choose a neutral gender.
A spokesperson for Passport Canada wouldn't comment on those changes, noting only the current rules: transgender people can have their sex changed only if they've fully undergone surgery or if they are about to undergo the process. That doesn't apply to Julian.
When Julian was processed and released, he was pointed toward the Canadian side of the border. He checked his bags and realized that all of his hairdressing gear was missing — the officers had loaded it into the car he had been riding in.
Frustrated, Julian told his story to one of the Canadian border guards.
"That sucks," was the response he got. The border agents pointed him to the information centre where he could try to arrange a bus or cab back to Vancouver. It was closed.
Julian called some friends to come get him at the border and bought himself a new ticket. He later got his hairdressing equipment sent back via UPS — ringing up another $75.
He says there's no recourse to expunge his record. While he was never formally charged with a crime, there is nevertheless a steep penalty.
On his way home, he got curious and flipped through his diary. He finally found the smoking gun that detailed his illicit drug use — it was a diary entry from years earlier that mentioned, in explicit details, being high during a sexual encounter.
"Ten border guards standing around reading about my really graphic gay sex? It's really invasive," he says.
Julian has applied for a waiver to return to the United States, but he’s yet to hear back. The $685 he has already paid toward getting the waiver is non-refundable, even if the application is rejected. He'd had to submit fingerprints and a drug test to the American authorities, and there's no guarantee that he'll be allowed back in. He has chosen to be referred to by a pseudonym in this story to avoid jeopardizing that application.