The State Department has quietly updated its language on gender markers for passports


Renewing a driver’s license or passport often requires paperwork and a ton of patience, but for transgender people changing their gender markers, the process can be overwhelmingly challenging and, sometimes, unsuccessful.

On Sept. 13, Rolling Stone reported that the State Department changed the name of its “Gender designation” page to a “Change of sex marker” page. It also removed links to resources from the American Medical Association and replaced most uses of “gender” with “sex.”

While the policies of changing gender markers on passports have remained unchanged for a number of years, Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, condemned the State Department’s language changes. “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,” she said in a statement. “Transgender people can and absolutely should continue to update and renew their passports. That is our right and that should always be our right.”

In response to the NCTE, the State Department responded with its own statement, stating the changes were intended for consistency, and the State Department intends to revoke these updates. “We want to state unequivocally that there has been no change in policy or in the way we adjudicate passports for transgender applicants. The Department of State is committed to treating all passport applicants with dignity and respect. With regard to the web update, 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. We apologize for inadvertently including some language which may be considered offensive and are updating the website to remove it.”

Recently, a number of transgender women were also retroactively refused renewal of their passports, according to a report by Them in July. On Twitter, Danni Askini, the executive director of Gender Justice League, said she was asked to provide “proof of transition” for the first time, despite having a passport identifying her as female for 20 years. Janus Rose, a technology researcher, had her gender marker invalidated after nearly a year, requiring her to get another doctor’s note “verifying” her sex.

“It seems pretty clear that even if the policy hasn’t changed, something has changed in terms of guidance on how to enforce this — because it’s being enforced differently now,” Rose told Them.

A State Department official told Mic in an email that the department has “seen reports of a few transgender individuals having difficulty renewing their passports,” but said they have “not changed policy or practice regarding the adjudication of passport applications for transgender individuals.”

The official added that the State Department has “provided passport services to transgender individuals for many years, and has extensive instructions for such applications on our website.” They added that the department “strives to treat all applicants with dignity and respect.”

According to a survey by the NCTE, only 11% of transgender individuals have both their “preferred name and gender on all IDs and records.” While changing your gender marker on a driver’s license or passport may seem easy, the processes can sometimes be time-consuming and difficult depending on the individual case. There are few tips worth knowing in advance when it comes time to head to the DMV.

Gender change on a driver’s license largely depends on the state’s policies

Changing your gender marker on a driver’s license is easier in some states than others.

In a state like California, gender change policies are considered trans-friendly by the National Center for Transgender Equality. The process requires a doctor’s note, noting an individual’s transition.

Processing a gender change in other states, like Alabama, however, is more difficult. A gender change in the state requires proof of gender-affirming surgery which is problematic for a number of reasons.

For one, with costs and discrimination as barriers, not all transgender people have the option of medical transition, and others simply choose not to, Gillian Branstetter, a media relations manager at the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in an email.

According to Branstetter, one in four people experienced an issue with their insurer related to being transgender, and one in four even declined to see a doctor out of fear of mistreatment.

Currently, 12 states still require proof of surgery to change genders on driver’s licenses, but federal legislation surrounding passport gender changes are more promising.

Changing your gender marker on a passport is easier, but the process can lead to “identity disconnect”

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

In 2010, the State Department adjusted its gender change policies, deciding that “proof of appropriate clinical treatment” in the form of a doctor’s note would be sufficient, without surgery as a requirement.

Still, according to the survey by the NCTE, just 18% of those surveyed updated their gender on their passports. This could be due to a number of reasons. One barrier to consider is that in many cases, you might change your gender marker on one form of identification before another, Maxwell Greenberg, a transgender man, said in an email.

This can create an “identity disconnect,” he said. Greenberg is in the process of applying for a name and gender change on his driver’s license, meaning that he will be identified differently on the state level than on the federal level for a time.

“My court date is in two weeks, so I don’t quite know what it will be like to have a state ID with one name and a federal ID with another,” he said. “One question I have is, how will voting work for me in the midterms? It might seem silly, but I really have no clue. Having two different IDs is not a great feeling.”

While gender transition is a process in and of it itself, efforts to make it more streamlined on the state and federal level would make a significant difference for trans individuals — and ultimately help incorporate much-needed inclusivity into our legal processes.

Sep. 14, 2018, 12:46 p.m.: This story has been updated.