On being nonbinary in a civil disobedience action

Anarquismo queer

A week ago I took part in a civil disobedience action for climate justice in Lisbon. It was not my first civil disobedience action, nor will it be my last. However, in this action I realised that for me it is no longer the same.

I have been arrested several times in various countries during my activist life. My first arrest was in 1986 in Germany, in an action against a nuclear waste processing factory. The last one was probably a few years ago in England or Belgium. So, I know more or less well the process of an arrest in various countries. Although it is true that it is not pleasant, I have learned to manage the fear that always accompanies these situations. Or, so I thought, until last Saturday.

The action took place in the afternoon. I had arrived the day before to participate in a training workshop, but the training was not used to form affinity groups. Although I was not alone - there were three of us from my collective in Seville - I did not know who else was in the same affinity group, but I did know from experience that there was not enough time to build trust - or at least not for me. On Saturday morning I decided not to participate in the tube locking on part, as I didn't feel comfortable. Although, at this point I still wasn't able to clearly name what I was uncomfortable with.

So, I went with the demonstration, and when I arrived at the blockade point I joined a sit-in - without tubes. Within a short time, the police cleared the two other blockade points and arrested 26 people. At our blockade point we decided after one hour to make a declaration of a commitment to come back in a few months, and we lifted the blockade to go to the police station and support the detainees, who were released during the night from midnight onwards. Some of the women were strip-searched.

The next day I began to realise what had caused me the discomfort: although I have been arrested several times during my activist life, all these arrests took place before I identified as genderqueer, and before I started hormone treatment and changed - queered - my body. And it is one thing to be detained as a cis person - male or female - and another thing to be detained as a trans* person, or as a nobinary person. And this aroused a lot of fears in me, possibly triggered by hearing the stories of women's strip searches.

A police station is a super binary space. There is no room for people who don't fit into the male-female binarism. Normally, the first thing that happens when you are taken to a police station is (binary) sex segregation. Then, my worries: how would they read me, how would they treat me? Since my body is no longer binary, and my passport has an 'X' in the sex field, how would they determine where to put me? Worse still, what would happen in the event of a strip search, or a body search? Since I have both tits and a penis, a police officer of which sex would search me? Would I be put in a cell with men, women, or alone? How would they decide? And, during all this, will there be trans/queerphobic comments?

But beyond the police, I was also worried about "our" part. Not because of trans- or queerphobia, more because of a lack of awareness of the special vulnerability of trans* and nobinary people in the case of an arrest: would my fellow activists be aware of my vulnerability, or of mistreatment by the police, not so much physical mistreatment, but a violation of my dignity by denying me - once again - my gender identity? How could they support me in such a situation? And does the legal team have experience with trans/queer issues, and are they aware of the protocols (if any) regarding the treatment of trans* or nobinary people in the case of an arrest?

Triggered by the action in Lisbon, where I was not detained, I realised that I am not really ready to be - once again - detained. I have many questions, doubts and concerns, and I think they are important questions and concerns for the whole movement, if we take intersectionality seriously and want to build a movement where diverse people - trans*, queer, with functional diversity, etc - feel safe in civil disobedience actions. Before the police, we need to raise awareness about the different vulnerabilities of different groups - such as trans* and non-binary people - and develop strategies to support each other in our disobedience actions. This also includes including these situations in the legal briefing for the action, and that the legal team is aware of the protocols and rights of these groups. Also, I think, time is needed in the affinity groups to talk about these issues, and to build trust, but also awareness of the specific vulnerabilities of each person. On this basis, one could also talk about needs and possibilities of support in different situations, for example in the case of detention.

To return to the subject of a detention, in the Spanish State, Instruction 13/2018, of 17 October, of the Secretary of State for Security, regulates "body searches" (and other things). It says that "except in the previously referred circumstances of urgency due to serious and imminent risk for the agents, external body searches will be carried out by personnel of the same sex as the person being searched, following the criterion of maximum respect for the sexual identity of the person, especially in the case of transsexual, transgender or intersex persons". But, the problem is in the detail: what does "same-sex personnel" mean in the case of a non-binary person? But not only this: Would a trans man with a vulva prefer to be searched by a man or a woman? Or a trans woman with a penis?

It seems that both the Ertzaintza in the Basque Country and the Mossos in Catalonia also have their own (binary) protocols. For example, "Ertzaintza officers are obliged to carry out body searches of transsexual persons according to the self-perception of the gender identity of the person to be searched, whether it is the one that appears on their ID card, in the case of having reassigned the registered sex, or according to what is stated by the person". In case of doubt about the gender of the person arrested, the police officer must consult him/her "about his/her gender identity or self-perception in a subtle and polite manner". But what would happen in the case of a non-binary person?

I have not found anything more specific in Spain. In other countries, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, there are protocols from various police forces, such as the West Yorkshire Police in the United Kingdom. In this protocol you can read:

Officers and staff are responsible for:
• Employing a tactful, sensitive approach to the use of titles and names for preferred gender, i.e. addressing trans people in the gender they present (referring to a transgender female as a Woman and a transgender male as a Man) and using the correct personal pronouns of she/he. For non-binary people, pronouns he/she, his/hers, may be replaced with more neutral pronouns such as: they, per, zie or fey;

And: “All searches and procedures must be carried out with courtesy, consideration and respect. Officers should show particular sensitivity when dealing with trans and non-binary individuals.

In relation to body searches, as protocol says: “The detainee must be asked which gender of officer/staff they want to undertake the search, and they both must sign the custody record (or in the case of a stop and search, the officer’s pocket notebook). They may request that two officers (female and male) search appropriate areas of their body.

Obviously, the fact that protocols exist does not mean that in practice the police apply their protocols. We know this from our experience. However, such protocols can be used to defend our rights and our dignity in the case of an arrest. And, I would like to receive information about these protocols in the legal briefing. So far in the sessions on legal issues before an action I have never received clear answers, and I have never had the feeling that the legal team was aware of the rights of trans* and non-binary people in case of detention (and are they aware of the rights of people with functional diversity?)

I would like us to develop some good practice guidelines for organising civil disobedience actions in respect of truly inclusive actions, where we can all feel welcome, supported and respected. Anyone else up for it? Get in touch with me.