Erin Reed has long been looking forward to taking her first international trip — to London — next year.
But Reed, a 32-year-old transgender woman living in Maryland, has also been dreading securing her first passport for the journey. “I had no idea of how I’m going to prove my gender to the passport office,” she said.
Because her birth certificate reflects the gender she was assigned at birth, Reed would have been required to provide a letter from a doctor affirming she has received medical treatment to facilitate her transition in order to change the gender listed on her passport.
But that’s no longer the case. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that transgender people will be able to self-select their gender on their passports without requiring a letter from a doctor. For the first time ever, the State Department has also “begun moving towards” adding a gender marker for nonbinary, intersex and gender-nonconforming people on passports, Blinken said, with the caveat that it “will take time” to do so.
For Reed, the announcement lifted a weight off her shoulders.
“It’s huge,” she said. “I know [getting a passport] is going to be easier, and now I’m not going to put it off as long.”
Trans people seeking to change their gender to “male” or “female” on their documents can now do so immediately. For nonbinary, intersex and gender-nonconforming people, the additional gender marker will become available later this year, the 19th reported on Wednesday. At least 10 other countries also issue passports with gender markers other than male and female, according to the LGBTQ civil rights organization Lambda Legal.
Twenty-one states plus D.C. allow residents to use an “X” gender marker on their driver’s licenses, and 14 U.S. states allow residents to mark “X” for their gender on their birth certificates. As it stands, nonbinary, intersex and gender-nonconforming residents of those states are able to list “X” on their driver’s licenses and/or birth certificates, but have been forced to pick “male” or “female” on their passports.
Having identity documents that fail to match gender identity can cause anxiety and depression among trans and nonbinary people “because they’re fearful of being misgendered, especially when somebody sees their driver’s license or passport,” according to Vanessa Visquerra, the LGBTQ services coordinator at PFY, a New York-based advocacy organization.
Many of these Americans come across issues when it comes to identification, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality. Sixty-eight percent of transgender and nonbinary people reported that none of their identification documents or records listed both their correct name and gender identity, and 32 percent of respondents said they had been harassed, denied benefits or service, asked to leave, or assaulted after showing an ID with a name or gender that didn’t match their gender presentation.
The rule changes “might take away a lot of that anxiety and depression from being misgendered at the DMV or the airport,” Visquerra said. And the elimination of the requirement to provide medical documentation reflects that “many trans and nonbinary people don’t wish to medically transition, and they shouldn’t have to to have their documentation match their identity,” she said.
Reed has experienced this stress firsthand: With her Social Security card and birth certificate not accurately reflecting her gender identity, she regularly has to brace herself for doctor’s appointments and filling out paperwork that may require her to input information from her inaccurate documents.
“It always causes me to worry that whenever I’m updating something else and the document doesn’t match, that I’ll have to stay on the phone for hours dealing with customer service,” she said.
Wednesday’s announcement follows years of advocacy by LGBTQ-focused organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which launched a campaign calling for the changes earlier this year and delivered a petition to the White House in March with more than 68,000 signatures. The news is particularly significant given this year’s wave of legislation seeking to prevent transgender kids from playing sports, according to Arli Christian, the ACLU’s campaign strategist.
“Despite a hateful wave of anti-trans legislation this year, trans, nonbinary and intersex people know who we are and we need recognition of who we are — not permission,” Christian said in a statement.
The news also comes as a result of a years-long lawsuit led by Lambda Legal on behalf of Dana Zzyym, an intersex and nonbinary U.S. Navy veteran who has sued to get an accurate passport.
“I’ve been at this fight for so long,” Zzyym also said in a statement. “I am optimistic that, with the incredible support and work of Lambda Legal and the Intersex Campaign for Equality, I will soon receive an accurate passport. One that reflects who I truly am.”
For Cianán Russell, a 38-year-old nonbinary American citizen based in Brussels, having identification documents that list their gender as male — which they had previously transitioned to after being assigned female at birth — give rise to “a personal feeling of invalidation, of invisibility, of misrepresenting myself,” they said.
“One of all of our human rights is to be recognized as who we are by the state, by where we are as citizens, and I don’t think that right is fulfilled for me — what my documents say tells the wrong story,” said Russell, who’s a senior policy officer at LGBTQ rights organization ILGA-Europe.
Now, they plan to get a new passport that accurately reflects their gender identity as soon as possible. But eventually, they’d like to have a document without their gender identity listed anywhere, they said: Russell believes that it can give rise to violence and that it’s unnecessary, given that fingerprints act as a form of identification.
As Russell put it: “When I see the future of identity documents, I’d love to talk about not how we create additional markers but how do we remove this marker entirely.”