U.S. passports to include 'X' gender option. Why it's a 'victory for millions of people,' activists say

·9-min read
Starting April 11, Americans can opt into having a new gender option on their U.S. passports. For activists, it's a milestone that's been decades in the making. (Credit: Getty Images)
Starting April 11, Americans can opt into having a new gender option on their U.S. passports. For activists, it's a milestone that's been decades in the making. (Credit: Getty Images)

Trans, nonbinary and intersex Americans are celebrating a huge milestone this week after the Biden Administration announced new measures aimed to make the federal government more inclusive for all. And chief among them was a new gender option for passport holders.

Beginning on April 11, in addition to being able to still choose an "M" or "F" to indicate one's gender marker on a U.S. passport (where it is still officially labeled "sex"), citizens will have a third option to choose from: "X." This option will be available to all — without medical documentation, and even if their selected gender on other government documents is different.

The option to select a third gender on U.S. Social Security records will begin in the fall and will be available for other forms of documentation next year, the administration notes.

The State Department began its transition toward allowing a third gender marker on U.S. passport applications in October with the issuance of an "X" gender passport for Dana Zzyym, an intersex and nonbinary U.S. Navy veteran who had won a six-year legal battle over the issue.

“This is a victory for millions of people — for intersex people, the nonbinary community, the transgender community, gender-nonconforming people. All kinds of people are going to benefit. I’m happy for them,” Zzyym, 64, tells Yahoo Life this week.

Related video: Alexis Sanchez of the Sacramento LGBT Community Center talks changes

Upon hearing the news of “X” passports now being widely offered, Zzyym — who has not yet used their new passport because “I can’t afford to go anywhere” — says, “I felt pretty good.”

“I didn’t really do it for me, I did it for the intersex kids,” they tell Yahoo Life, explaining that they saw the fight as part of a larger picture that could someday help establish a legal identity for intersex people and help stop the practice of performing painful, irreversible medical interventions on babies born with genitalia that doesn't appear as strictly male or female. (The term "intersex," though, refers to a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t clearly fit the typical definitions of female or male.)

Against the backdrop of recent legislation targeting trans communities — in Texas, Florida, Arizona, Tennessee and Oklahoma, for example — activists say that President Biden is sending a clear message to the LGBTQ community that he has their back.

"I really can't overstate my excitement," Olivia Hunt, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, tells Yahoo Life of the updated policies. "A lot of Americans still live in states that don't have X markers as an option on their drivers licenses. Having this option on a U.S. passport is tremendous because regardless of where you live, you can have that."

While trans people are legally allowed to update their sex/gender marker on a driver's license in all 50 states, the process is challenging and varies widely. And as of now, only 21 states (plus the District of Columbia) offer an "X" option in addition to "M" and "F."

According to UCLA's Williams Institute, there may be 1.2 million Americans who identify as nonbinary (compared to an estimated 2 million transgender Americans, according to the Human Rights Campaign); parsing that out, the Williams Institute believes that upwards of 16,700 people, or 14% or those who identify as nonbinary, may request passports with an X gender marker each year.

"This estimate is based upon current demand for X gender markers on driver’s licenses in states which allow such an option," the report states.

'We cannot accept it as the final step'

Despite the positive changes, activists say more work needs to be done to ensure the safety of trans and nonbinary travelers on a global scale.

"This is a really wonderful first step, but we cannot accept it as the final step," Rain Dove, a nonbinary model and activist with a U.S. passport who recently worked overseas to help extract LGBTQ Ukraines, tells Yahoo Life.

"It could be very easy for [border agents] to accidentally mistake [an "X"] passport as being fake, fraudulent or [to think] that there was an error on that passport," they add, stressing that while several other countries (including Canada, Australia, Nepal and New Zealand) have implemented similar passports changes, it's vital to somehow make sure these changes translate to non-English-speaking border patrol officers who might mistake an X to mean "error" or "invalid."

Hunt says that ensuring the safety of all travelers stretches beyond just passports. And to that end, as part of Biden’s policy changes, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will be working with airlines and airports to begin using scanners with new technology that will replace the current system, which Hunt says discriminates against trans and nonbinary bodies.

"It's been a problem for trans travelers for decades," Hunt explains. "The system we have in place currently, which is going to be replaced, requires that whenever a traveler steps into the scanning booth, the TSA agent would have to push a button marked 'male' or 'female.' In some cases, there are actually blue and pink buttons. They would do this based on their best guess. The scanner would go through and try to see how well that person's body matches the stereotypical outline for the stereotypical man or woman. And if your body deviates from what that stereotype is — if you happen to be overweight or underweight, if you happen to use a prosthetic device or technology because of a disability, if you happen to be transgender — that will cause an anomaly and require additional screening by hand."

If those "anomalies" happen to be on your chest or in your groin, which Hunt explains is common among trans/nonbinary travelers, she says it can sometimes result in unwanted touching by TSA agents.

"The new system they're rolling out gets rid of this idea of a gendered choice," she explains of Biden's updated policies. "Teaching TSA agents how to interact respectfully with trans people, how to screen trans people in light of this new screening technology that we're going to be seeing makes a major difference."

Just as important, Hunt stresses, is for folks carrying an "X" marker on their passport to be cognizant of local laws and attitudes when traveling in places that are known for discriminating against queer people.

"Having an X marker on an ID does not protect somebody from experiencing discrimination or violence," Hunt explains. "In countries where trans people, especially nonbinary people, are particularly marginalized or even criminalized, it can put somebody at greater risk. And so it's important to decide when they choose to update their passport, what's best and safest for them, for their own needs, while traveling."

"The people who do choose to have their passports changed, they have to understand the repercussions of that and be proud of the pioneering work that they're about to be a part of. But they have to be OK with educating people around them," Dove adds. "For instance, if they're handing their ID to a bartender or something of that nature."

While selecting a third gender marker is a personal choice for everyone, Zzyym says it's one the intersex community is particularly entitled to.

“They have the right to bodily autonomy, should be able to make their own decision when they turn 18,” Zzyym says of those who were pushed into one gender or another as children and can now freely choose a third gender marker. Zzyym, who was given surgery to "look" like a boy and then raised as one, only began to identify as nonbinary much later in life. Then came their activism and the winning passport decision. “We had to get some kind of legal recognition before we get that body autonomy," they explain.

Needless to say, trans, nonbinary and intersex activists across the country are embracing the changes and celebrating them as tremendous milestones in the movement toward equality:

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