Metro Weekly

U.S. State Department announces it will issue gender-neutral passports

State Department will also eliminate proof of gender confirmation surgery before an applicant changes their gender marker.

U.S. passport -- Photo by Levi Ventura on Unsplash
U.S. passport — Photo by Levi Ventura on Unsplash

U.S. Department of State announced on Wednesday that it will be allowing passport applicants to self-select their gender marker — including a third gender-neutral option — without having to provide proof of gender confirmation surgery if they want to change the marker to reflect a gender transition.

In a news release, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the announced changes align with several executive actions taken by President Biden to demonstrate this administration’s commitment to human rights and ensure that LGBTQI+ individuals are treated equally.

“Today, I am pleased to announce that the Department will be taking further steps toward ensuring the fair treatment of LGBTQI+ U.S. citizens, regardless of their gender or sex, by beginning the process of updating our procedures for the issuance of U.S. Passports and Consular Reports of Birth Abroad (CRBA),” Blinken said.

For years, LGBTQI+ advocates have demanded for years that the State Department follow the example of several other countries and allow a gender-neutral “X” gender marker on U.S. passports, which would more accurately reflect the gender identity of intersex or nonbinary individuals. Currently, at least 10 other countries, including Canada, issue passports with a third gender option. 

For the past few years, Dana Zzyym, an intersex U.S. Naval veteran has been involved in a lawsuit against the State Department challenging its policy restricting passports to gender binary options, sued after being denied an accurate passport. Zzyym, who serves as the associate director for the Intersex Campaign for Equality, was invited to attend the International Intersex Forum in Mexico City in October 2014. But when they applied for a passport, Zzyym refused to mark either “male” or “female” on the application, arguing that to pick one would be untruthful.

Even though Zzzyym provided their original birth certificate, military records, and a doctor’s note confirming their gender as intersex as proof of identity, the State Department refused to approve the application. Zzyym, enlisting the assistance of Lambda Legal, then filed a lawsuit alleging that the agency’s binary-only policy on gender markers is discriminatory.

As the case has bounced around the federal judiciary over the past few years, a judge has ruled three separate times that the State Department’s policy is discriminatory. Last year, following those victories, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the State Department to reconsider its rejection of Zzyym’s passport application. The court noted in its decision that forcing nonbinary intersex individuals like Zzyym to pick either a male or female gender marker in the passport application “injects inaccuracy into the data.”

“A chef might label a jar of salt a jar of sugar, but the label does not make the salt any sweeter,” 10th Circuit Judge Robert Bacharach wrote in the decision. “Nor does requiring intersex people to mark ‘male’ or ‘female’ on an application make the passport any more accurate.”

Related: California congressman introduces bill to add third gender marker to U.S. passports

In the news release, Blinken said the State Department was “evaluating the best approach” to achieve its goal of adding a gender-neutral gender marker on citizenship and identity documents, with the aim of ensuring “as smooth a travel experience as possible” for nonbinary, intersex, or gender-nonconforming individual passport holders.

“In line with the Administration’s commitment to re-engage with allies and partners, the Department is taking these steps after considerable consultation with like-minded governments who have undertaken similar changes,” Blinken said. “We also value our continued engagement with the LGBTQI+ community, which will inform our approach and positions moving forward.  With this action, I express our enduring commitment to the LGBTQI+ community today and moving forward.”

LGBTQ advocates praised the department’s decision, which will impact millions of individuals in the United States, including 1.2 million nonbinary adults, 2 million transgender people, and as many as 5.5 million people who were born intersex.

“Having accurate passports and consistent ID is critical to daily life,” Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement. “It’s necessary for travel, banking, starting a new job and school. Inaccurate IDs open transgender people up to harassment and discrimination. Reforming US passports is a common-sense way to improve the lives of transgender people. … With today’s announcements, the federal government is taking significant steps to ensure transgender Americans can more fully participate in their communities and in public life.”

Dana Zzyym – Photo: Lambda Legal

According to the U.S. Transgender Survey, only 11% of respondents reported that all of their IDs matched their gender identity, while nearly two-thirds had no IDs reflecting their correct name and gender identity. Additionally, nearly one-third of those who showed an ID not reflecting their gender identity reported being verbally harassed, denied benefits or service, or assaulted.

The Human Rights Campaign praised the development, saying the issuance of gender-neutral licenses and the scuttling of proof of surgery will decrease the risk of discrimination, harassment, and violence for an already vulnerable group.

“More than a third of states already issue forms of identification with non-binary gender markers and the United States has accepted foreign passports from nearly a dozen countries — including Argentina, Denmark, New Zealand, and Canada — with a third gender option for years,” Alphonso David, the president of HRC, said in a statement. “As a leader on the global stage, the United States is now modernizing its policies and must also encourage other nations to adopt inclusive policies that support non-binary and transgender people.

“This is an important step towards achieving meaningful progress for LGBTQ equality in America, and will empower and enable millions of citizens to travel domestically and internationally with greater confidence that the United States recognizes their gender identity.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which launched a six-figure campaign aimed at pressuring the Biden administration to issue an executive order guaranteeing accurate federal IDs, also praised the State Department’s actions.

“Improved access to accurate passports will have such a profound impact on the lives of trans, intersex, and nonbinary folks across the country,” Arli Christian, a campaign strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “Now people will be able to fill out a passport application and indicate M, F, or X — whichever is most appropriate for them. Despite a hateful wave of anti-trans legislation this year, trans, non-binary, and intersex people know who we are and we need recognition of who we are — not permission. Today’s action demonstrates an important first step in realizing a whole-of-government policy for accurate IDs.”

See also:

California bans state-sponsored travel to five more states over anti-LGBTQ laws

NFL says “football is gay” after Carl Nassib comes out

Marjorie Taylor Greene says LGBTQ-inclusive school curriculums are ‘child abuse’

Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!