News LGBTQ

State Department Changes Passport Website Language for Transgender People (Updated)

Katelyn Burns

"Transgender people can and absolutely should continue to update and renew their passports," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

UPDATE, September 13, 1:49 p.m.: In an email to Rewire.News, the State Department apologized “for inadvertently including some language which may be considered offensive and have updated the website to remove it.” The website has been updated yet again, removing references to “sex changes” and returning the non-binary FAQ to how it was in earlier versions of the webpage. The language use of “sex” instead of “gender” remains throughout the page. Yet another version of the medical certification letter template is included with the new website containing language that differs from the template included in the official written policy. Rewire.News has sought clarification on this discrepancy.

Language on the U.S. State Department webpage regarding gender marker changes, the process of changing one’s gender on U.S. passports, was surreptitiously changed for the first time since 2010 this week, alarming LGBTQ rights advocates.

Archived versions of the agency’s site show the page titled “Gender Designation Change” as recently as this Tuesday now bears the title “Sex Designation Change.” Though the actual policy and requirements for changing passport gender markers appears to be mostly unchanged—meaning transgender people can still change their passports without surgery—several of the page’s “frequently  asked questions” were also changed.

The site now links to a new template for doctor’s letters certifying an applicant’s gender transition, again replacing “gender transition” with “sex change,” though the link to the old letter is still active. This could present problems for any existing applicants or any advocacy groups that link to or list the language of the old letter in their application instructions for trans people. The new letter language appears to be different from that which is used in the official State Department policy handbook.

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Previous mentions of the word “gender” across the page have now been replaced by “sex,” and an additional change was added explicitly noting the exclusion of those who are nonbinary. A new “FAQ” asks if citizens who are nonbinary and have legal identification that is neither female or male can obtain a nonbinary gender marker on their passport. “No, the only sex markers available for a U.S. passport are male and female. A U.S. passport does not list the bearer’s gender identity,” reads the answer. “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.”

The State Department move has alarmed transgender rights advocates. “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 National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling 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.”

The page’s web address was changed as well, reflecting the new “sex”-oriented language, which could affect advocacy groups or other resources that link to the site for trans people in the US to utilize.

A slight policy change regarding the timing of a legal name change also appears to have been put in place. Whereas before the website stated that the name on legal identification did not have to match the name on a passport, the site now says it depends on when the name change court order was obtained.

“It depends on when you applied for a passport. Your ID does not need to be in your current name if your name change occurred within one year of the date you submit your passport application. Your ID can be in either your current or previous name, as long as you submit a court order documenting your name change to the current name,” reads the new language. “If your name change occurred more than one year prior to your application, you must obtain an ID in your new name before a passport may be issued.”

Links to the American Medical Association and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health on medical resources for transitioning have been removed from the site.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

The language changes come in the wake of several widely reported inconsistencies experienced by trans people applying for passports in the past few months. At the time, a State Department spokesperson declined to comment on individual cases and stated that the process for changing a passport gender marker remained unchanged.

Trans people have been concerned over potential changes to the gender marker process as passports are an important solution for updated accurate ID for trans people who don’t want or can’t afford the surgeries needed to change their state IDs where such procedures are required.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has ties to the anti-LGBTQ group Family Research Council, which called for eliminating the process for trans people to change their gender markers on official government ID in a 2015 report titled “Understanding and Responding to the Transgender Movement.”

“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.

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