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Gender and Passports: A Matter of Respect

John Knight,
Senior Staff Attorney,
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June 16, 2010

A passport is more than a permit that allows you to go globe-hopping. It’s an official, government-authorized certification of your identity. While traveling abroad, it can be a lifeline if you run into trouble. So it would seem imperative that your passport truly reflect who you are.

For transgender Americans, this simple assurance has been difficult to come by. While the State Department has allowed for gender markers to be changed on passports with documentation from a doctor or hospital that an individual has had surgery (or plans to), not all transgender people undergo surgery. In fact, many transgender persons forgo surgery because they cannot afford it, do not need it, or do not want it. Government identification policies should not interfere with this very personal decision.

International border crossings are stressful for all of us, but imagine having to explain at every crossing why you’re passport has the wrong gender marker on it. Denying so many transgender Americans accurate passports makes them particularly vulnerable when traveling in countries that are hostile to transgender people, and denies them basic respect for their gender identity.

Which is why we’re commending the Obama administration for its decision last week to ease the restrictions on changing gender markers on passports. Transgender Americans will no longer have to undergo surgery to have their marker changed. They now must only provide a note from a doctor that they are undergoing “clinical treatment for gender transition,” a much less daunting obstacle for those who choose not to have surgery. No medical records are required. The new policy will also ensure that officials issuing passports will only ask appropriate questions to determine identity, further preserving the dignity and respect of all passport applicants.

Having passports that accurately reflect gender identity is not only a matter of respect. For individuals traveling abroad, it can be a matter of safety. We’re glad that the administration recognizes that Americans need not sacrifice their dignity in order to be documented.

By our last count, 37 states still require surgery before an individual can obtain a driver’s license with the correct gender listed on it, while 49 states require surgery to change the gender on a birth certificate. States such as Illinois have gone so far as to dictate how much surgery a person must have before they can correct their birth certificate. Much work remains, but the State Department’s recent policy change gives us hope that we’re moving in the right direction. Now it’s time for states that still require surgery prior to issuing identification documents to revise these policies.