June 17, 2010 at 4:25 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
State Dept. issues pro-trans policy for U.S. passports

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A recent change at the State Department enabling transgender Americans to have their correct gender identified on U.S. passports is being hailed as “hugely significant.”

The change, unveiled June 10 by the State Department, mandates that U.S. passports reflect the appropriate gender of transgender people who present certification from a doctor saying they’ve undergone gender transition. Under previous rules, sexual reassignment surgery on genitalia was a prerequisite for gender change on a passport.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the new policy is “hugely significant” and the “biggest administrative win to date.”

“As we’ve needed better and better ID — more and more consistent ID — it’s been harder and harder for trans people to get it,” she said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

If a transgender person is in the process of transitioning but hasn’t yet fully transitioned, a State Department rep said a temporary passport valid for two years would be issued. After the person has fully transitioned, the department would issue a passport that is valid for 10 years.

Keisling said the change enables transgender people to have an official source of identification that correctly identifies their gender, which she noted is important for transgender people who live in areas where they aren’t allowed to change their gender on other forms of identification.

She said that Tennessee, Ohio and Idaho, for example, are places where residents aren’t allowed to change their gender on their birth certifications.

“It means that when you go apply for a job, you have to out yourself, because you have to show them government-issued ID, which often is triggered by your birth certificate or your driver’s license,” Keisling said. “Now trans people in those states can use their passports.”

Keisling said the new change also helps national security and the identification process because “now you have people with consistent ID that makes sense for who they really are.”

“At border crossings, they’re not looking for genitals,” Keisling said. “They’re looking for guns and drugs — and that’s what they should be looking for.”

In a Blade interview, Michael Kirby, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said the policy came to the attention of the State Department in February.

Kirby said the National Center for Transgender Equality and other LGBT groups met with department officials and determined “the policy was out of date from what it should be.”

“Up until that time, we required a statement from a physician that there had been an operation to accomplish the transgender change,” he said. “We were told that’s not what current medical theory is.”

According to a State Department statement issued last week, the new policy is based on the standards of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, an organization the American Medical Association recognizes as an authority in transgender issues.

Although the change still requires a statement from a medical physician noting that a person has undergone gender transition, Keisling said this certification could be based on different factors depending on the individual because of “modern understanding of what it means to be a transsexual.”

“Some people may just need hormone therapy, some people may need some kind of surgery,” Keisling said. “They may need surgery and not be able to afford surgery, and that’s taken into account by the standards of care that the medical profession has set about.”

Kirby said a certification from a physician must include, among other things, a medical license or certification number, contact information, a statement affirming that he or she is the attending physician and language noting the applicant “has had appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition to the new gender.”

“So it’s fairly simple,” Kirby said. “But it has to be a doctor-patient relationship, not a non-professional relationship.”

The State Department statement says officers who issue passports “will only ask appropriate questions” for applications to obtain information necessary to determine citizenship and identity.

Kirby said this guidance is to ensure officials won’t ask probing questions such as “Why did you do this,” “When did it happen,” or other inquiries that “are really not germane” to a transgender person’s passport application.

The new change comes about 18 months into the Obama administration and after about the same length of time that organizations, including HRC, advocated for the new change as a policy that could be made without a change in law.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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