US passports will include option for “X” gender marker starting April 11

Author: Nicole Sganga / CBS
U.S. passport. (Credit: CBS)
U.S. passport. (Credit: CBS)

Americans applying for a U.S. passport will be able to identify with the gender designation “X” beginning on April 11, the State Department announced Thursday, in recognition of Trans Visibility Day. The move intends to make federal documents more inclusive for transgender, intersex, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people.

“We’re setting a precedent as the first US federal government agency to offer the ‘X’ gender marker on an identity document,” Douglass Benning, principal deputy assistant secretary for consular affairs at the State Department, told reporters.

Applicants will be permitted to select gender “X” on their passport application form, even if it doesn’t match the gender on their birth certificate or other documents.

The United States is not the first to implement such a policy. State Department officials consulted counterparts in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, among others, ahead of the announcement.

While the gender “X” marker will be available for routine services next month, the State Department plans to roll out the option for other documents — including passport cards, expedited and consular reports of birth abroad — beginning in late 2023.

“The X means unspecified or another gender identity,” said Jessica Stern, U.S. Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI+) Persons.

Stern said that while the policy change recognizes the “true identity” of the passport holder, it will not create new definitions or rights.

“The provision of an ‘X’ gender marker option is important because human beings do not always fit within a male or female category around the world, the lived realities of transgender intersex, non-binary and gender-nonconforming persons reflects that there is a wider spectrum of humanity than is represented by a binary sex designation on passports,” Stern said.

The State Department first previewed the change after Dana Zzyym, an intersex and nonbinary resident of Colorado, filed a federal lawsuit in 2016. The activist and U.S. Navy veteran sued after years of lobbying the State Department to offer an “X” gender marker option on U.S. passport applications.

Zzyym, who was recognized by Lambda Legal in their lawsuit, received the first passport of its kind in October 2021.

The U.S. Census does not inquire about gender identity. But according to a survey by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, there are about 1.2 million nonbinary LGBTQ adults in the U.S.

For its part, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will implement gender-neutral screening procedures at airport checkpoints, designed to limit the number of false alarms and invasive pat-downs, in the coming months.

“Our goal is to touch less and rely on the technology,” said Jose Bonilla, executive director of traveler engagement at the TSA’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

“This new algorithm that we have been working with our manufacturers on to manufacture and test further allows the technology to make less errors,” Bonilla continued. “In other words, further define the areas that it’s searching to reduce alarms.”

Reducing those alarms, according to the TSA, will ensure less touching and physical engagement between TSA agents and the traveling public. In the fiscal year 2022, the TSA received $18.6 million in added appropriations to develop and test the new technology.

Technology flaws and lackluster training of TSA staff routinely plague transgender and gender-nonconforming travelers, who have historically been exposed to more frequent and invasive searches than cisgender counterparts at airport checkpoints.

The agency created in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks began replacing metal detectors with full-body scanners after a U.S.-bound passenger attempted to blow up a plane on Christmas Day 2009 by hiding plastic explosives in his underwear.

But LGBTQ advocates have long advocated for the TSA to update the screening procedures that disproportionately affect transgender travelers.

“Currently, the operating system for [scanning] relies on gender,” said Bonilla. “So for example, if a male passenger were to walk into the [scanner] and the officer identifies that passenger as a male, the officer will then hit a male button on the operating system, which will trigger an algorithm associated with the particulars of a male. The same holds true if the passenger identified as a female. That has driven concern, obviously, with the public, especially individuals who identify as transgender, nonbinary or gender-nonconforming.”

A 2015 survey of transgender Americans by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 43% of respondents who had gone through airport security faced a problem at the checkpoint related to their gender identity.

In addition to updated screening measures, the TSA will also allow TSA Pre-Check enrollees to pick an “X” gender marker during the application process.

According to the TSA, two major domestic air carriers have followed suit. Beginning on March 31, American and United Airlines will offer additional gender options such as “X” and “U” in their travel reservation system. Delta plans to roll out similar options later this year.

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