This week, the Department of State has quietly removed the page on their website called “Gender Designation Change,” which had been up since 2010, and replaced it with a new page called “Change of Sex Marker” — and that change has trans advocates worried. The requirements for changing sex/gender markers on United States passports are the same, but the language was changed throughout the page from “gender” to “sex,” and new FAQs were added, including one specifically stating that non-binary gender identity may not be designated on a U.S. passport, noting, “The sex marker may not match the gender in which you identify.”
“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 Advocate called the language changes “confusing” and posed the question, “Is the Trump administration trying to discourage trans travelers?”
A Department of State official sent Rolling Stone a statement similar to the one they made in response to the National Center for Transgender Equality, saying, “We want to state unequivocally that there has been no change in policy or in the way we adjudicate passports for transgender applicants. We provide passport services to many thousands of transgender people each year, and 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 passport application process.”
“The State Department seemed to believe this would lead to less confusion but it clearly led to more,” says Gillian Branstetter, Media Relations Manager for the NCTE.
In response to the State Department’s assurances that the language change was meant to be clarifying and did not reflect any change in policy, Executive Director of Trans Lifeline Sam Ames tells Rolling Stone, “As an attorney I will tell you that a lot of people at the State Department are also attorneys and they know the significance of small changes in language. We can argue over the intent as much as we want but at the end of the day this is endangering people’s lives.”
“We see the real-life impacts every day,” Ames continues. “When discrimination is condoned at these highest levels, the effects aren’t abstract, it directly impacts the amount of people who call [the crisis hotline].”
The language change comes amidst a larger threat to the rights of transgender individuals regarding access to accurate passports and broader civil rights. In July, them. reported that several trans women were denied passport renewals, despite having all of the required medical and legal paperwork, and previous passports showing their accurate gender markers.
“This has to be taken as part of a comprehensive narrative that is filled with individual actions,” Ames says. “It’s part of a clear pattern of actions designed to stigmatize, erase, and exclude transgender people. The impact is that we see more calls to a crisis hotline designed in part to help people experiencing suicidal crisis.”
“We call on our elected leaders to take strong action to ensure that the official policies on passports and gender identity remain in place,” they add. “In the meantime, we’ll keep working to support people who are most directly impacted through our micro-grant program and our hotline. We know that today might be a day that people need it more.”