New Passport Rules Ease Switch for Transgenders

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Members of GetEQUAL, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization, stage a protest on Capitol Hill May 20, 2010 in Washington.

The State Department is marking Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month — a designation instituted by President Obama last year — with something much more lasting than a parade. On June9, it published new guidelines for citizens wishing to change the gender listed on their passports, embracing policy that will make the switch much easier.

For decades, the State Department had required that transgender individuals, who identify with a gender other than their physical sex, have "sexual reassignment surgery" — a term that doesn't have a clear definition in the medical community — before they were permitted to change their passport listing. Now a note from their physician stating that they have undergone clinical treatment for a "gender transition" will net them a new passport valid for two years. (Regular passports are good for 10.)

This new, no-surgery-required standard is similar to those in European countries like the United Kingdom, where emphasis is placed on transgender citizens living the life of their "acquired gender" rather than what they anatomically bring to the table. And it's more in line with the progressive, individualistic philosophy of the LGBT community, which has pushed for this change for years.

Although the evidence is largely anecdotal, transgender travelers have reported being harassed and embarrassed as they slog through airport security. "I can get hassled, and I do get hassled if people determine that I am transgender," says Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "I get that most Americans are dubious, but I guarantee you that you would not be able to give me one programmatic or security reason that this is not a good idea," she adds. "[Airport security is] supposed to be looking for guns and drugs, not penises and vaginas."

Opponents of more liberal transgender identification often make ideological arguments rather than focus on practical outcomes, however. Paul Scott, a Michigan state representative, is vying for the GOP secretary of state nomination this year partly on such a platform, announcing in January that he would make it "a priority to ensure transgender individuals will not be allowed to change the sex on their driver's license in any circumstance," even if they had undergone surgery. Scott called this a "social values" issue in an interview with the Michigan Messenger — as well as one that would keep men "from dressing as a woman and going into female bathrooms."

The previous surgical requirement was based on the notion that gender is all in the genitals, explains Walter Bockting, a clinical psychologist who studies transgender issues at the University of Minnesota. But there is no one-size-fits-all surgery that scientifically constitutes a change in gender — which also made the passport issuing process difficult for State Department employees — and many people can't afford to have elective procedures. He estimates that male-to-female genital reconstruction costs between $12,000 and $25,000, while chest surgery, the most common female-to-male procedure, costs between $4,000 and $8,000. And he ballparks the cost of phallus construction, a much less common and less developed procedure, at between $20,000 and $75,000, depending how far a woman goes in the multi-stage process.

Others simply don't feel they need surgery to assume the gender role they feel is right for them. "There are more and more transgender and transsexual people who live full-time in that role and travel as such and do not have the surgery," Bockting says. "Surgery should be that this is medically necessary for health and well being ... not for proper documentation."

Bockting is also the president of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, on whose standards of care the State Department based their new guidelines. Among those measures are estimates of how many transgender people live in the U.S. — an elusive statistic given that transgender status often isn't an option on survey forms. According to recent studies, about 1 in 12,000 men and 1 in 30,000 women are transsexual, but Bockting notes that less formal U.S. surveys have shown the number of transgender to be more in the neighborhood of 1 in 500.

That number will always be hard to pin down, given that gender is such a slippery thing to define. On one side are people like Scott, who believe gender and sex are simply synonyms denoting which bathroom one should enter. On the other are people such as Keisling, who think that while sex is physical, gender is a cultural construction like race or ethnicity. And the State Department's new policy shifts the government toward Kiesling's theoretical camp.

For her, gender is not something you're born with, but rather a fruit of self-discovery. "For 95% of people, their gender identity happens to match their sex," Kiesling says. "It's just one of these cultural lessons that takes a long time ... to sink in. I walk through this world every day without anybody having any idea of what my anatomy is like under my clothes ... I don't tell people about [whether I've had] surgery because it's not relevant. The State Department gets that. Kudos to them."