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Trudeau Scholar explores rights of transgender prisoners

Photo of: William Hebert

William Hébert is now heading to Brazil, where the PhD student in socio-cultural anthropology at the University of Toronto will examine the links between theory and practice in a country considered a leader in the rights of transgender inmates.

A few years ago, William Hébert was on a panel of experts tasked with helping recommend policies to protect the rights of transgender prisoners. The panel found they had more questions than answers.

Hébert is now heading to Brazil, where the PhD student in socio-cultural anthropology at the University of Toronto will examine the links between theory and practice in a country considered a leader in the rights of transgender inmates.

“There is quite a bit of research on this issue in Brazil, whereas in Canada it is just emerging,” said Hébert, one of 16 students across Canada named Trudeau Scholars for 2015 by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

The information that does exist in Canada comes largely from activists and transgender people themselves, many facing violence and discrimination that sometimes drives them into sex trade work and other criminalized activity to survive.

“We know trans people as a population are over-represented in terms of arrest, sentencing and incarceration in Canada,” said Hébert, who will be a visiting scholar at Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul.

“Once they find themselves behind bars, trans people are extremely vulnerable to violence, assault and victimization from other inmates and also from prison personnel.”

The in-prison persecution ranges from lack of access to medical treatment such as hormone therapy to sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

Under the rationale of “protecting” transgender inmates from violence, prisons often put them in solitary confinement, which Hébert notes is actually considered a form of torture by the United Nations and can result in serious impacts on psychological health.

One of the chief problems is the gap between official policies and how they are actually practised in federal and provincial institutions, he said.

For that reason, he’s only cautiously optimistic that Ontario recently adopted a new policy to allow transgender prisoners to choose the institution where they serve their time.

“It is probably a step forward, but it remains to be seen how it’s going to be implemented, and it doesn’t address the fact that trans people end up in jail in higher proportions than the rest of the population.”

Throughout his career as an activist and now as a scholar, Hébert’s passion for testing how theories are put into practice has led him to a broad range of projects that address the needs of people often forgotten within larger equal rights movements.

For his current research, he is defining “transgender” as widely as possible to include all individuals who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. A key research challenge will be the thin line between incarceration for criminal offences and detention for immigration purposes.

Hébert notes there have been cases of LGBT asylum seekers who have been detained for long periods then deported, only to face violence and even death when they are returned to their home countries.

“I think this is a very important time in Canada to celebrate some of the steps forward that have been taken to recognize issues that LGBT people face,” he said.

“It’s also a time to reflect on what is the best way to go forward with justice system reforms and more radical ways to address the needs of marginalized transgender people within that larger group.”