Analysis LGBTQ

Is the US Government Revoking Passports for Trans People? It’s Complicated.

Katelyn Burns

It has always been difficult to navigate the various regulations governing gender marker changes on passports.

Janus Rose, a transgender woman, tweeted last week that the U.S. State Department had retroactively revoked her passport while processing a request to change her name, setting off an alarm throughout the trans community. A subsequent report by Mary Emily O’Hara at them. claimed the government is revoking passports for trans people.

Rose’s story came after a similar experience in late June from trans activist Danni Askini, who heads the Seattle-based Gender Justice League, one of the parties to a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s trans military ban. Askini has since stated publicly that her case is unique and that people should not use her experience to represent a larger potential change in State Department policy toward issuing gender marker changes on passports.

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) agreed and sought to reassure trans people that there has been no change in State Department procedure for issuing passports with gender marker changes.

“NCTE has investigated recent concerns about passport processing for transgender people and reached out to the parties involved,” the organization said in a statement Monday. “All of the incidents we have seen involved unusual circumstances and bureaucratic mistakes by the passport agency and have caused very unfortunate hardship and anxiety for our community members. Please note, the longstanding passport gender marker policy has not changed. We are closely monitoring the issue and are vigilant for any attack on the rights of our community.”

Rewire.News spoke with more than a dozen trans people who have run into issues with obtaining or renewing U.S. passports over the past two months, revealing that the truth may be more complex than random administrative mistakes.

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Marcus, a trans man who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of retaliation, had his passport revoked last week after applying for passports for his twin children. “I got a letter from the State Department telling me that my passport was being retroactively revoked because I did not have all of the required documentation,” he told Rewire.News over text.

Marcus was born intersex and had a procedure to “normalize” his body when he was 11 days old before transitioning to male as an adult. After holding a valid passport with his new gender marker for four years, the State Department revoked it and demanded documentation for the surgery performed on him as a newborn to prove his assigned gender. Such documentation, he says, does not exist. “The hospital that performed this surgery does not keep pediatric records past the age of 28,” he said.

Marcus has also run into issues acquiring passports for his children because he is a queer parent, as the State Department has asked him for complete documentation both of his gender, and legal parentage of his children. “They asked for certified copies of my birth certificate, Social Security card, gender, and name change court documents, their birth certificates, and an additional notarized statement of consent from my wife.” Because Marcus and his wife had their children through in vitro fertilization, Marcus’s wife is the only parent who can consent to their children leaving the United States. It’s a common issue for queer parents. “They originally asked for an adoption decree as well but obviously we don’t have that because there was no adoption.”

The process has exasperated Marcus, who feels that he’s being unfairly singled out by bureaucratic excess. “Like, what’s next? We have to track down our sperm donor and get their permission for my kids to have a passport?”

Marcus’ story, however, is illustrative of the issues faced by more than a dozen trans people who spoke with Rewire.News for this story. Though Marcus and Rose were the only ones among those contacted by Rewire.News to face retroactive revocation of their passport, a pattern has seemingly emerged where passport officials have rejected the doctors’ notes required in order to change the gender marker on a passport. It remains to be seen whether this is a new wave of anti-trans Trump administration policies or representative of the normal difficulties trans people face when applying for passports.

“I haven’t had any clients report to me that they’ve had issues with obtaining passports over the last few months. I know there was some buzz about passport issues on Twitter,” said Elizabeth Ricks, legal director and staff attorney for the TransLife Care Program at Chicago House, an organization that helps trans people navigate the complicated paperwork needed to change ID documents. “Everything I know about those incidents is second hand, but as far as I know they involve unusual circumstances and administrative mistakes. As far as I know, nothing has changed in regard to the State Department’s policy and there haven’t been mass issues.”

When reached for comment, a State Department official pointed to the department’s resource guide for changing a passport gender marker, which includes a model template for a doctor’s note testifying that the applicant has undergone “appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition to the new gender.” However, it appears based on the experiences of those who spoke with Rewire.News that even slight deviations from the official template could result in either an application denial, or more seriously, revocation of a previously issued passport.

Such was the issue with Rose, who spoke with Rewire.News over the phone. Rose had applied for a gender-marker change months ago and was issued a new passport that correctly listed her as female, but with her birth name. She recently had her name legally changed and applied for an amended passport to reflect her new name, at which point the State Department revoked her previously issued passport and demanded a new doctor’s note for the previously approved gender-marker change.

Rose provided Rewire.News with the doctor’s note she submitted when she originally attempted to change her gender marker. The letter contains the information and certifications demanded by State Department guidelines. But because Rose receives transition care at a clinic, the letter is signed by both the nurse practitioner, who sees her personally, as well as the attending doctor who oversees the clinic. For this reason, Rose said, her passport was revoked pending a new letter signed only by the doctor.

Though State Department officials declined to comment on individual cases to Rewire.News, they pointed to State Department guidelines for revoking passports, which includes the following: “The passport was illegally, fraudulently or erroneously obtained from the Department; or was created through illegality or fraud practiced upon the Department.”

And these recent concerns within the trans community are valid, given that newly confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has ties to the anti-LGBTQ group Family Research Council, which first released a report titled “Understanding and Responding to the Transgender Movement” in 2015. Among the group’s stated goals was a call for eliminating the ability for trans people to change their genders on official government ID. “Ideally, the law would forbid government recognition in any way (whether on birth certificates, driver’s licenses, passports, or any other government-issued identification) of any change in an individual’s biological sex as identified at birth,” reads the report.

But it’s always been difficult to navigate the various regulations governing gender marker changes on passports. With 29 passport agencies and centers devoted to processing applications, whether trans people are forced to endure bureaucratic hell just for accurate government ID seems to rest on the whims and biases of whoever ends up processing the application, which was just as true under the Obama administration as it is under Trump.

“I’ve [recently] had to help at least two trans woman and one trans guy resubmit their application two or more times. Each time the form was rejected for the tiniest reasons that are ignored on other applications,” said a passport acceptance agent at a U.S. Post Office, who spoke to Rewire.News on the condition of anonymity. “From what I understand from the people who are having problems, it’s only a few people at the processing centers making it difficult. So if you get one of the bad ones, you end up with a lot of problems.”

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