And if this makes you more than a little nervous, you're not the only one.
Marilyn Drew Necci | August 3, 2018
In an upsetting yet, sadly, unsurprising development, multiple transgender women are now reporting that the US Passport Office is retroactively revoking their passports. In a report released by Conde Nast’s LGBTQ-oriented website, Them, two different trans women allege that the State Department revoked passports they’d been previously issued. In both cases, the denial related to the women’s transgender status.
Danni Askini is a transgender activist currently employed as the Executive Director of Seattle’s Gender Justice League. Askini, who transitioned in 1998 at the age of 16, has had a passport indicating that she is female for 20 years. However, last month, when she went to renew her passport, her request was denied. As Askini told Them, the US Passport Office said the denial was because she had “failed to disclose” her transgender status. They now required her to provide proof of gender transition in order to reissue her passport.
Janus Rose, a writer and musician from New York who performs under the name Zen Albatross, recently experienced a similar problem. Last November, she’d had the gender marker on her passport corrected to indicate that she was female. However, earlier this month, she finalized her name change and sent in paperwork to that effect, in order to update her passport. That’s when her passport was “retroactively invalidated” by the US Passport Office, according to a tweet Rose posted on July 25.
Wow. The U.S. passport office just called and told me that due to an “error,” the government has *retroactively invalidated* the change of gender marker it authorized on my passport last year. They won’t renew my passport w/ correct name & gender until i submit a new doctors note
— ✨ ???????????????????? ???????????????? ✨ (@zenalbatross) July 25, 2018
This was a surprise for the clinic that provided her gender transition paperwork. The clinic had provided a letter signed by a nurse practitioner in 2017, and at the time, the letter had been accepted as proof of transition. This letter is something my clinic has been using as a boilerplate for years for so many people,” Rose told Them. “The clinic says I’m the first person to get a rejection.”
While Rose’s case is concerning, Askini’s is perhaps more so — especially since, according to Askini, the US Passport Office would have had no official reason to be aware of the fact that she is transgender. Her legal gender change had been granted when she was still a minor, and the records had been sealed by a judge. “None of my documentation would disclose my trans status,” Askini told them. “No databases that are local, state, or federal should note my gender as anything other than female.”
A State Department official told Them that “every applicant who applies for a U.S. passport undergoes extensive vetting of their identity, claim to U.S. citizenship and entitlement to a passport.” “When a passport applicant presents a certification from a medical physician stating that the applicant has undergone or is receiving appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition, a new passport will be issued with an updated gender marker,” the official said. “Sexual reassignment surgery is not a prerequisite for updating the gender marker in a passport and documents proving sexual reassignment surgery are not required.”
While the State Department did not respond to Them’s question about whether there had been a change of internal policy in regard to transgender people, the fact that changes in policy relating to trans people have occurred in multiple departments of the executive branch since Donald Trump took office makes it seem likely to Rose. “It seems like they’re applying a different standard of enforcement to these cases now. I’ve never heard of a person having a problem changing their name on a passport until now,” she told Them.
Rose has reason to believe that new policies specifically target trans people. “I spoke to someone the other day, a cis person, who had their legal name changed and it was fine,” she told Them. “There was no asking for additional documentation or proof. She literally did the same thing just the other day. That’s what this is about. A cis person can go in and make this simple change, and a trans person cannot.”
Askini feels more specifically targeted due to her activism around trans causes. “I believe that the Trump Administration or someone in the Seattle Passport Office has targeted me politically and politicized the process for obtaining passports,” she told Them. “Their actions and statements are NOT consistent with the actual letter of the code related to trans people.”
And while this may come across as paranoia on Askini’s part, there’s reason for her trepidation. After all, while official records of her transition have been sealed by courts, it doesn’t take much more than a Google search to discover Askini’s work as a trans activist and organizer. For the Passport Office to have adopted a policy of digging much deeper than was previously the norm when dealing with people known or suspected to be transgender can hardly be seen as a surprise.
According to the National Center For Transgender Equality, though, these incidents are not a reflection of official policy changes. “These instances that have been reported in the media, we do not feel that they are reflective of a broader policy change at the State Department at this time,” NCTE Media Relations Manager Gillian Brandstetter told LGBTQ-focused website IntoMore. And despite concern over potential changes in procedural guidelines implemented by the Trump administration, Brandstetter said, “NCTE has seen bureaucratic errors like this since before the Trump administration.”
Askini has since made similar clarifying statements on social media. “What’s happening with my passport is unique to the facts in my case (adoption as a minor and being trans) and I have been crystal clear about that,” she posted on facebook last Sunday. “As a trans person with a relatively high profile I do have lingering questions about the extent of hoops I am being asked to jump through as well as the cruel indifference with which the current policy is being applied in my case.”
However, she was quick to urge concerned citizens not to panic. “We should continue to monitor if people are unable to get passports or encounter problems – as some other cases have now started popping up,” she wrote on facebook. “BUT people should not draw conclusions from simply a small sample size of 2 that the sky is falling.”
It’s hard not to panic at stories like these. For now, the best advice is almost certainly to remain calm. However, if you’re a trans woman concerned about the legal status of your gender marker, it’d probably be a good idea to get your paperwork completely in order before dealing with any branch of the US government in the near future.