Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year's Tidings of Passport Cheer

To say 2018 was not been a good year for the T of the U.S. lgbtqi+ community would be to put it mildly.  Between the Trump administration's push to expel all transgender members of the military, a leaked memo detailing a plan by the Department of Health and Human Services to erase us, and the recent deletion of the Office of Personnel Management's guidance of transgender persons in the U.S. federal government -- the news has been unrelenting and almost never good.  With each executive branch step to remove transgender protections, the surface area of the island on which we stand shrinks.  Allies who say not to worry as protections are stripped away sound at times like climate change deniers who don't see hurricanes, tsunamis, and wild fires as portents telling us that time is running out.

Another worrying development this year were edits to the U.S. State Department web site regarding changing gender markers in passports.  Ever since Secretary Hillary Clinton simplified the procedures for changing that marker, a U.S. passport has become the ID of choice for most transgender Americans.  Rather than documentation of invasive surgeries that had been required in the past, only a letter from a certified medical provider that the bearer is receiving "appropriate clinical treatment" is needed when applying for a new passport.

Those worrying web site edits included replacing gender with sex, a change that for many of us harks back to the old days of sex reassignment surgery. Did this reflect a change in procedures?  The rules that Secretary Clinton simplified could be changed by a simple stroke of the pen by a subsequent Secretary.  Were the web site changes a harbinger of changes to come?  Adding to the worry, there were several reports from the field that people who had changed the gender marker in their passports a decade or more ago were being asked to provide documentation of their gender transition when they went to **renew** their passports.  The fact that additional factors may have been in play for these persons did little to allay fears.

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) went into action quickly by requesting a meeting with the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.  Other organizations also requested meetings, and I was involved behind the scenes in a couple of preparatory phone calls.  The report back from those meetings was not to worry, that nothing had changed other than an unfortunate, ill-prepared edit to the passport web site.  Nationwide, however, there was a rush on the part of many to renew passports sooner rather than later lest those soothing words be replaced by another executive tweet that would change everything.

I should know.  Despite being a Foreign Service Officer, I also worried that things could change and not for the better.  I hold a diplomatic passport with five years' validity and a tourist passport that would expire in 2021.  I had already had some trouble using the tourist passport on its own in that my hair style, hair color, and some facial features had changed since the passport was issued in 2011.  Far better to renew the passport now, I thought, before I retire next summer and surrender the diplomatic passport.  Also, if anything were to go wrong with the renewal, I would rather it happen now while I'm still employed at State and can work the back channels to raise a ruckus.  So it was that in the first weekend of December I dropped into my corner mailbox an envelope containing my application, old passport, new photo, and letter explaining my request for early renewal. 

All of this brings me to those good tidings of New Year's passport cheer.  I arrived in my little Maine town last Friday evening and went to the post office to retrieve my mail on Saturday.  There it was, mixed in with two months' bulk mail:  my new tourist passport.  It was issued on December 21 with full ten year validity.  No questions were asked.  

I now join my voice to the soothing words from NCTE and elsewhere:  the procedures established by Secretary Clinton are still in place.  To this I add my pride in my own organization, the Department of State.  Sane minds are still in contril.  For the first time since the debacle with the denial of Sultana Kali's student visa in the summer of 2017, I applaud my colleagues in the Bureau of Consular Affairs.  They are doing the right thing.

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