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Gender markers on passports: Changes to U.S. Department of State website spark fear

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The State Department recently made some changes to its website, where it lays out the policy and requirements for changing the gender marker on a passport. The ability to change one's gender marker on official documents after or during transition is vital to the safety and comfort of transgender and gender non-conforming people, and the process can be so complicated and restrictive as to cause genuine turmoil. (The state of Colorado still hasn't passed recent years' legislation to make it easier for transgender individuals to change the gender on their birth certificates.)

Naturally, the change in the State Department's language put many people and organizations on-edge.

The National Center for Transgender Equality pointed out some of the most glaring changes on Wed., Sept. 12:

• Links to resources from the American Medical Association and the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) have been removed.
• A new paragraph highlights burdensome provisions of the 2010 policy, specifically for two-year provisional passports for people who submit letters stating they are “in the process” of transition.
• A needless paragraph has been added to the website stating, "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." Though this language is undesirable and uninformed, it does not change the requirements of the policy.
• Most mentions of the word “gender” have been replaced with the word “sex.”

These changes immediately sowed confusion among the LGBTQ community. Given the fact that national policy seems to fall to the whim of President Trump’s Twitter account frequently enough, the questions raised were valid ones. Did this change in language indicate a change in policy? Would it become even harder for transgender people to receive the proper gender designation on their passport?

After advocacy groups raised such concerns, the National Center for Transgender Equality reported on Sept. 13 that an official with the department sent them the following statement:

"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."

Unfortunately, the rule that a transgender individual must submit certification from a physician to change the gender marker on their passport still stands, but thankfully it doesn’t look like the process will become any more complicated than that in the foreseeable future.

As of right now, the language on the U.S. Department of State page has largely reverted to its previous state, though many instances of the word “gender” replaced with “sex” remain. (See an archived version of the page from 2010 here.)

The policy for changing the gender marker on a U.S. Passport still does not allow for those who do not identify as male or female to change their gender marker to anything but the two binary genders. In 2017, Canada became the first country in the Americas to allow for gender-neutral gender markers on their passports (using the letter “X” instead of “M” or “F”), but the U.S. has yet to take that step.

Intersex activist Dana Zzyym, a resident of Fort Collins, Colo., has been attempting to obtain a gender-neutral passport for four years. They are still embroiled in legal battles.

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