The woman had no international journey plans when she came to renew her passport at our Chicago office. This wasn’t particularly unusual; at first blush, Amy (not her real name) appeared to be a “careful planner” type.
She handed her current passport to Laurie, our co-founder and CEO. In the photograph was a younger man with close-cropped hair. He bore a remarkably close resemblance to Amy, who had long, curly hair framing her angular face.
He could have been Amy’s brother, Laurie thought. After a few moments of confusion, it dawned on her: the young man in the photo now was this strikingly pretty woman standing at the counter.
Over the next week, we completed the job for Amy. To do so, we guided her physician through three versions of a letter required by law when revising gender identification.
Laurie handed the new passport to Amy, who set it down next to the prior passport and scrutinized them side by side. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “This is going to make changing my gender on everything else so much easier,” she said. “If I can do this, the rest will be so much easier.”
Her relief and joy offered a glimpse into the agony she had endured, and that other transgender individuals suffer in a world that has so often marginalized and mocked them.
Since our encounter with Amy in 2011, we have helped about a dozen others secure passports that affirm their preferred gender. They may not ever travel to another country. Still, it’s humbling and gratifying to play a small role as they take a crucial step in their journey to this identity-affirming stage of their lives.
The impact of changing someone’s gender marker on official identification is eloquently stated by Toni-Michelle Williams, a community organizer with the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative:“That simple change in documentation where your name and gender matches your appearance can change your world. It can change your interactions with police and the people you meet in everyday life. It makes all the difference.”
Until 2010, to change the gender marker on a passport, individuals were required to have undergone gender completion surgery. But under an Obama administration policy enacted that year, the State Department began allowing individuals to change gender markers on a U.S. passport. To do so, the applicant must furnish a letter from their physician stating that the individual had received “appropriate clinical treatment.”
That subjective description enabled the doctor and transgender individual to define what that meant. Most importantly, it did not necessarily require the huge leap of undergoing gender completion surgery.
Meeting state requirements to change gender on state ID and driver’s licenses can range from extremely tough to all but impossible. Many transgender people have no desire to undergo gender completion surgery. For those who would like the surgery, the cost or other circumstances can be a barrier that delays or prevents a desired transition outright.
A dozen states have a more stringent state requirement than the federal requirement. In other words, if you are a transgender individual residing in Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas or Wyoming, having a passport is the easiest path to official, legal recognition of the gender with which you identify.
Unfortunately, it’s all subject to change, especially considering President Trump’s steady drumbeat of anti-LGBT initiatives. The National Center for Transgender Equality calls him “the most anti-transgender President in American history, rolling back important advances made over several decades.”
It would be tragic if this advance in transgender rights got derailed by what the NCTE aptly describes as “The Discrimination Administration.”
If you need help getting the gender changed on your passport, the friendly team at Swift has you covered. Visit the Gender Change section of our website, and review the medical certification guidelines on our blog to get started.
Rob Lee is co-founder of Swift Passport and Visa Services. Originally from Michigan, Rob is an avid fisherman and SCUBA diver who enjoys adventure travel.