For most Americans, a passport is something you dust off for an international flight.
For me, and so many transgender people in this country, it is a lifeline.
But ever since November 2016, we have been living with the fear that our right to passports that reflect our gender could be rescinded at any moment. Last week, unusual changes to the State Department website did little to quell our fears, when some of the language around gender marker updates on its website changed. The offensive term “sex change” was briefly used, and then deleted.
Passports are vital for transgender Americans because, ever since 2010–when then-Secretary Hillary Clinton approved a policy change at the State Department—we have been able to update gender markers without undergoing sex reassignment surgery first.
Instead, we simply have to provide a physician’s letter stating that we have received “appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition.” There’s some processing time, of course, but then, voilà—new passport.
Compared to many state-level policies around driver’s licenses and birth certificates, that new policy was a godsend. Many states, especially in the South, require proof of surgery in order to change an “M” on a driver’s license to an “F” or vice versa. Even more demand that anyone looking to update the gender listed on their birth certificate go under the knife first—and three states won’t even change a birth certificate after that.
When I transitioned back in 2012, I was living in Georgia. I was able to legally change my name, even if the judge seemed a little uncomfortable allowing it. (His exact words, if memory serves, were that my name was now officially “whatever it says on here,” as he gestured toward the paper on his dais.) I was even able to get a new photo on my driver’s license to better reflect my appearance, which was shifting the longer I took hormones.
But until I was able to undergo surgery—a goal that is financially and sometimes medically out of reach for the many transgender people who want it—I was stuck with a conspicuous “M” on my driver’s license, thanks to Georgia state law.
I was terrified of being pulled over and having to hand over a form of ID that had my name on it, along with a picture that looked like me, but an “M” in the sex field.
Going to bars was essentially out of the question, as I didn’t want to deal with the embarrassment of having a bouncer notice the “M” while checking my birth date.
My first domestic flight, though, was by far the most anxiety-ridden experience. I had no idea how to explain my license to TSA, so I ended up slipping a note to the agent behind the podium letting him know that I was transgender, my heart pounding the whole time.
When I found out that I could update my passport with a doctor’s letter, everything changed. It came in the mail one afternoon—the first piece of official government documentation to ever acknowledge that I am a woman. And it changed everything.
Air travel was simple: There’s no reason you can’t use a passport to get through security for a flight from Atlanta to New York. Getting carded was fine. Sometimes a bouncer or a server would mention how rare it was to see someone use a passport as proof of age, but at least I didn’t have to out myself to a stranger in order to have a glass of wine.
And as for getting pulled over, well, I just had to watch my speed. There was no way to solve that problem until 2014, when I got my surgery in California and then went to the Department of Driver Services as soon as I convalesced and got back home. Waiting in a long line at the DMV was the perfect way to celebrate my recovery.
Accurate passports aren’t a mere travel accessory for transgender people; they make life easier outside of the airport, too. Which is why so many of us have been concerned for so long that the Trump administration will do something terrible to that Obama-era policy.
After all, the White House hasn’t exactly been shy about attacking transgender rights.
They quickly rolled back guidance on transgender students in February 2017, effectively torpedoing the first Supreme Court case that could have pushed transgender rights forward.
President Trump has tried—and so far failed—to ban transgender troops from the military.
Earlier this year, we learned that the Department of Health and Human Services deleted language on its website stating that Section 1557 of the Affordable Care act protects people from discrimination on the basis of “gender identity”—a foreboding change that, as writer Rebecca Ruiz observed, could signal a reversal of federal policy on transgender health care.
That flurry of anti-transgender moves has left many of us worrying that a rollback of the 2010 passport policy is a matter of when, not if.
But so far, those fears have yet to materialize. Every time that anecdotal reports of transgender passport trouble crop up on social media, they turn out to be isolated issues. And then last week, with the use of “sex change” on the State Department's website, many transgender people thought it was a sign that the Big One was coming soon.
The State Department told The Daily Beast that “there has been no change in policy or in the way we adjudicate passports for transgender applicants.” The website changes were confusing, but they didn’t actually represent anything concrete.
But the panic that spreads through the transgender community any time there is even a whisper of someone having trouble with the State Department is very real indeed.
The National Center for Transgender Equality had to reassure the community that the 2010 policy is still intact back in July, as Into reported, and they had to do it again last week after the website changes.
The constant paranoia, given this administration’s recent actions, is totally understandable.
After all, if Trump wakes up one day and decides to tweet that transgender people can’t be in the army, what’s stopping him—or someone in his administration—from making it harder for us to get passports—or from going after those of us who have already updated theirs?
“Transgender people across the country are reasonably concerned about their rights under this administration, and the edits made by the State Department to its website were unnecessary, uninformed, and offensive,” NCTE executive director Mara Keisling told me, when asked about the constant worrying in the transgender community around our passports.
Keisling says that NCTE has “made it absolutely clear to the State Department that this incident caused great concern for transgender people and their families”—and it most certainly did.
When I first heard about the website changes, I was worried that one day I might not be able to renew my passport—even though I first updated my sex marker all of six years ago.
Friends in far more vulnerable situations—especially those who are still waiting for the physician’s letters they need to update their passports—are worried about getting it done in time. They see the update to the State Department website as a sign—an omen, really—that an anti-LGBT voice in the Trump administration has noticed the 2010 policy and perhaps marked it for revision.
Of course, the State Department could comfort the estimated 1.4 million transgender adults in this country by just coming out and saying that the 2010 policy isn’t going anywhere.
Last week—after the State Department removed some of the more egregious language on the website, and restored the previously-deleted links to medical associations—NCTE noted in a blog post that they have told the federal agency “that they must swiftly assure us all that the existing policy will remain in place, and no further language changes will be made that could further confuse and discourage applicants and providers.”
But so far, no dice: “We are waiting for those assurances,” the blog post continued, “and will keep you up to date as we know more.”
I asked the State Department if they can officially state that the surgical requirement will not be reinstated, and that transgender people will continue to be able to change the sex markers on their passports. In response, a spokesperson sent me a reiteration of the 2010 policy, with no promises about the future.
“We have provided passport services to transgender individuals for many years, and have extensive instructions for such applications on our website,” the spokesperson said—but that’s something that the transgender community already knows.
What we need to know is if we’ll be able to receive passport services for many years to come. The question that remains unanswered is: How long do we have to live in fear?