New gender neutral passports first step toward travel inclusivity

By Emma Reilly
Opinion Editor

The use of gender neutral passport markers — announced on International Transgender Day of Visibility as one in a series of actions with which the Biden administration championed the visibility of gender-nonconforming Americans — went into effect Monday.

Nonbinary, intersex, and gender-nonconforming people may now select an “X” in place of a binary gender label for display on their passport, if they so desire.

The “X” marker will stand for “unspecified or another gender identity,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. This definition was constructed in response to “research conducted and feedback from community members” in order to remain “respectful of individuals’ privacy while advancing inclusion,” Blinken said.

The introduction of the “X” marker is an important step toward representing gender-nonconforming identities on official documents.

According to a study conducted by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, an estimated 1.2 million Americans identify as nonbinary.

The passport accommodation finally being made for over a million people is long overdue. While it does demonstrate a move toward inclusivity, there is still a long way to go when it comes to recognizing gender nonconformity on government documents.

The “X” marker was approved in tandem with related procedural updates that account for the fact that other identifying documents are gender inclusive.

According to CNN, the State Department announced plans to allow passport applicants to choose their own gender markers last year. This change allows people to choose a passport marker that differs from the sex listed on other documents, like birth certificates and driver’s licenses.

“At least 20 states…have also implemented similar changes to state documentation,” CNN said. Progress is incremental, but visibly underway. That’s encouraging.

Nevertheless, the “X” marker and the freedom to select varying markers do not prevent gender-nonconforming Americans from experiencing depersonalization and cruelty when they travel.

“Transgender, nonbinary, and intersex people worldwide who travel…have been exposed to skepticism, harassment, violence, and disenfranchisement,” CNN said. “The US is no exception.”

While these challenges are certainly exacerbated in instances where gender-nonconforming people are perceived as presenting differently than they are identified on their documentation, people with an “X” marker on their passport could still face similar barriers.

“For transgender people, trips to the airport commonly conjure serious anxieties about millimeter wave scanners — which routinely trigger false alarms about transgender bodies — and the repeated discrimination transgender travelers have experienced at the hands of TSA,” The Washington Post said.

Gender-nonconforming Americans’ travel-related anxieties borne from identity-related questions, suspicions, and prejudices will not be eased instantaneously just because a gender-neutral marker is available to them.

According to  the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, more than 40% of transgender Americans face complications at airport checkpoints. Misgendering, pat-downs, and requests to expose body parts are amongst such complications, according to NCTE’s website.

This data indicates that there are systemic issues at play that many Americans can’t afford to ignore. While the “X” marker may alleviate some travelers’ concerns about moving through airport security and identifying themselves while traveling, that may not be the case for individuals with pre-existing travel-related traumas and anxieties.

The “X” marker also does little to solve the issue of scanners that rely on cisnormative expectations.

According to The Washington Post, TSA screeners are forced to make snap decisions about travelers’ gender identities based solely on their outward appearance.

“This takes the form of a blue ‘boy’ button and a pink ‘girl’ button that agents tap as you approach the machine,” The Washington Post said.

The option to choose a gender-neutral marker allows transgender, nonbinary, and intersex Americans to more accurately identify themselves on their passports and promotes gender inclusivity. However, there are still procedural and social constructions in place that invalidate and harm gender-nonconforming people.

This considered, the “X” marker emerges as a rather small victory — though it is still one worth celebrating.

One thought on “New gender neutral passports first step toward travel inclusivity

  1. Passports are not usually used for Domestic travel. Guess lots of people haven’t travelled to countries that have extreme anti-smuggling laws. If they get one indication of an inconsistency you get pulled out of line. And what’s accepted in your home country doesn’t matter to them, and they don’t care who your lawyer is. Enjoy the invasive body searches.

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