All the while that the Trump administration has been attacking transgender rights, rescinding school-restroom guidance and trying to kick people out of the military, LGBT advocates have been nervously watching a certain State Department website.
That page—now only accessible via an internet archive—showed transgender Americans how to update the gender markers on their U.S. passports. In 2010, under Secretary Hillary Clinton, the State Department began allowing transgender people to change an “M” to an “F” or vice versa without undergoing sex-reassignment surgery, provided they had a letter from a physician stating they had undergone “appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition.”
It seemed the Trump administration, with its growing track record of anti-LGBT actions, would eventually notice that website—and indeed, late Wednesday night, the National Center for Transgender Equality noticed the URL was now dead.
In its place is a new website—entitled “Sex Designation Change”—that uses the outmoded term “sex change” rather than “gender transition,” goes out of its way to highlight the exclusion of non-binary people, and removes links to major medical associations that support transition-related health care.
What doesn’t appear to have changed is the substance of the policy: Transgender people can still change the gender markers on their passports without surgery. Which begs the question: Why mess with the website?
“While ultimately pointless, this move seems designed to frighten, confuse, and keep transgender people from exercising their full rights under the current policy—the same policy we fought for and won in 2010,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, in a press release. “Transgender people can and absolutely should continue to update and renew their passports. That is our right and that should always be our right.”
The State Department did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on the changes to the website. However, as recently as July 1, the State Department responded to a press request from The Daily Beast using the previous language of “gender transition” rather than “sex change.”
This summer, when there were anecdotal reports of transgender women facing bureaucratic challenges with passport renewal, The Daily Beast asked the State Department whether or not the policy had changed, to which a spokesperson responded: “When a passport applicant presents a certification from a medical physician stating that the applicant has undergone or is receiving appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition, a new passport will be issued with an updated gender marker.” That was, essentially, a reiteration of the 2010 policy.
Now, the State Department website says “sex change”—a term that media outlets now avoid because it’s seen as archaic and insensitive—instead of “gender transition” and “sex marker” instead of “gender marker.” Indeed, the new page barely acknowledges that gender can go beyond the sex one was assigned at birth—and when it does, it goes out of its way to dash the hopes of non-binary Americans who hoped they would soon be able to get an “X” on their passports like their Canadian neighbors.
The old version of the State Department website addressed this topic in the FAQ section under the heading: “If I identify neither as male or female, can I have a passport issued with a different gender?” The response to that query wasn’t the one non-binary people would want, but it didn’t close the door on the topic altogether: “No, the only genders available for a passport are male and female.”
Today, under that same heading, the State Department has added a paragraph that seems to preclude the possibility of the agency acknowledging non-binary genders: “A U.S. passport does not list the bearer’s gender identity. The sex marker on your U.S. passport is based on your evidence of U.S. citizenship and identity, including a medical certification of sex change. The sex marker may not match the gender in which you identify.”
In its press release, the NCTE called this paragraph “needless.” Indeed, it seems to have been added solely to reiterate that the State Department cares more about a person’s genitalia than it does about a person’s core identity and outward appearance.
One of the only other changes to the website is subtle, but still telling: The old version linked out to the websites of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and the American Medical Association. It also noted, correctly, that WPATH is “recognized as the authority in this field” by the AMA.
Now, the website no longer links out to WPATH and the AMA—and it simply states that WPATH “is recognized” by the AMA, erasing the description of WPATH, the world’s leading body on transgender medicine, as “the authority in this field.” Based on these two versions of the same website, it seems as though the State Department might still recognize the validity of transition-related medical care—but may be reluctant to do so as vocally as it did under the Obama administration.
NCTE noted the changes are “likely to cause confusion” even though “the underlying policy remains unchanged” and advised transgender Americans to instead consult the online version of the Department’s Foreign Affairs’ manual for clearer language on changing their passport gender markers.
That manual still uses the term “gender transition,” states that WPATH is “recognized as the authority in this field,” and even states that “an individual’s gender is an integral part of that person’s identity.” If the Trump administration is trying to erase all transgender-affirming language from State Department websites, it seems as though one has escaped unscathed—for now.
Update 9/13/18 12:30 PM ET: After this story was published, the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs responded to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, apologizing for the use of the term "sex change," and noting that the new passport website for transgender people seeking to renew or apply for a passport is "being refreshed as we speak and should be live shortly."
Shortly thereafter, The Daily Beast received a new URL.
"We want to state unequivocally that there has been no change in policy or in the way we adjudicate passports for transgender applicants," a State Department official said in a statement. "The Department of State is committed to treating all passport applicants with dignity and respect."
As for the shift from "gender" to "sex" in the website’s terminology, the official said that "we added language to make our use of terms consistent and accurate and to eliminate any confusion customers may have related to the passport application process," stressing that U.S. passports have "always used the term ‘sex’ marker."
Of course, the shift from "gender" to sex" resulted in the archaic term "sex change" briefly appearing on a federal website. The State Department official said, "We apologize for inadvertently including some language which may be considered offensive and are updating the website to remove it."
The official also said that the links to WPATH and AMA were "inadvertently removed during the website update process and are being added back."
The latest version of the website, accessible here, removes the term "sex change" and restores the links to WPATH and AMA, although the reference to WPATH being "the authority in this field" is still missing.
Also gone is the lengthy paragraph about non-binary applicants that the NCTE deemed "needless." Now, that FAQ question simply states: "No, the only sex markers available for a U.S. passport are male and female."