Since she transitioned in 1998, at the age of 16, all of Danni Askini’s identity documents have read “female.” But last month, when Askini went to renew her passport, her request was denied. Askini says the U.S. Passport Office told her she had “failed to disclose” that she was transgender and needed to provide proof of gender transition — after 20 years of having a passport that says she’s female.
“Make no mistake, this was an intentional action by the State Department to withhold recognizing my gender,” says Askini, who was eventually granted a temporary two-year passport that allowed her to travel from her Seattle home to Sweden. The activist and executive director of Gender Justice League needed to leave Seattle, she says, after a series of death threats posted on the anti-trans website Kiwi Farms, as well as threats from local alt-right groups in the Pacific Northwest. She’d had her most recent passport for 10 years, but it was up for renewal.
Askini’s battle with the U.S. Department of State — which oversees the Passport Office — began last month, and a June 29 tweet she posted about the ordeal went viral.
Just this week, another trans woman encountered the same problem.
New York-based technology researcher Janus Rose says she’s had her passport, with a female gender marker, since November. But recently she finalized a legal name change, and sent in paperwork along with her current passport to renew the document with the new legal name. It seemed like a simple formality, until she received a phone call from a passport processing center in South Carolina.
“She basically told me that even though the government had changed my gender marker in the last year, that was a mistake,” says Rose. The passport official told Rose that the State Department should not have allowed her to change her gender on the document — and that the medical documentation she’d supplied at the time was invalid.
“This letter is something my clinic has been using as a boilerplate for years for so many people,” Rose says. “The clinic says I’m the first person to get a rejection.”
Rose had successfully changed the gender marker on her passport in 2017 using a letter signed by the nurse practitioner at her clinic. The clinic, she says, told her they’ve never encountered a person being told that that letter is invalid or that they need to have it written by an M.D. instead.
“It seems pretty clear that even if the policy hasn’t changed, something has changed in terms of guidance on how to enforce this — because it’s being enforced differently now,” says Rose.
According to the State Department’s policy, a person seeking a gender change on a passport must submit an ID “that resembles your current appearance,” a recent passport photo, proof of legal name change if applicable, and a “medical certification that indicates you are in the process of or have had appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition.”
In response to an emailed request for comment, a State Department official said the department doesn’t comment on individual applications — but provided more context on the gender change policy in general.
“Every applicant who applies for a U.S. passport undergoes extensive vetting of their identity, claim to U.S. citizenship and entitlement to a passport,” said the State Department official. “When a passport applicant presents a certification from a medical physician stating that the applicant has undergone or is receiving appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition, a new passport will be issued with an updated gender marker. Sexual reassignment surgery is not a prerequisite for updating the gender marker in a passport and documents proving sexual reassignment surgery are not required.”
The State Department did not respond directly to a question about why someone’s gender marker would be “revoked” after already being changed years ago.
Rose says she’s frustrated that a simple name change turned into a reevaluation of the validity of her gender.
“I spoke to someone the other day, a cis person, who had their legal name changed and it was fine,” says Rose. “There was no asking for additional documentation or proof. She literally did the same thing just the other day. That’s what this is about. A cis person can go in and make this simple change, and a trans person cannot.”
Askini, in contrast, was disturbed by the fact that the State Department even knew she was transgender. In her specific case, her legal gender transition was granted by a judge when she was still a minor — and in relation to a sex trafficking case and a safety effort to conceal her identity, all of the child welfare records were sealed at the time.
“None of my documentation would disclose my trans status,” says Askini. “No databases that are local, state, or federal should note my gender as anything other than female.”
Askini believes the only reason she was eventually granted a temporary passport is because Seattle-based congresswoman Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s office put direct pressure on the passport agency on the well-known activist’s behalf.
“I believe that the Trump Administration or someone in the Seattle Passport Office has targeted me politically and politicized the process for obtaining passports,” says Askini. “Their actions and statements are NOT consistent with the actual letter of the code related to trans people.”
Rose has similar suspicions. Though she’s careful to steer clear of “the temptation to blame everything on Trump,” and notes that trans people have faced bureaucratic discrimination for years, she says it feels like a very sudden change has occurred at the State Department.
“It seems like they’re applying a different standard of enforcement to these cases now. I’ve never heard of a person having a problem changing their name on a passport until now,” says Rose.
Although the State Department did not directly respond to a question asking whether there had been a recent change in policy or internal guidance mandating new enforcement rules, a change would hardly be surprising. Since Trump took office, his administration has altered existing transgender-inclusive guidelines at the Department of Education, the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Census, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Even the Centers for Disease Control was instructed in an internal memo not to use the word transgender — along with terms like “diversity” and “evidence-based.” It’s not unfair to say the Trump administration has stopped just short of outlawing transgender people entirely.
“I think there’s an internal policy change to make it as difficult as possible for trans people,” says Rose. “The goal is to create friction. They can’t change all these laws right away, but they can make it really hard.”