The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I’m transgender. I won’t be getting an X on my passport.

(Eileen Putman/AP)
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Abeni Jones is a writer and artist.

“Male or female?”

I’ve been “randomly” selected by TSA for additional screening — again. Each time, the agent asks me whether I want a man or woman to conduct the pat-down. But what they’re really asking is: What are you?

In 2018, I officially changed the gender marker on my passport from M to F. By that point, I had socially transitioned, undergone top surgery and been on hormone replacement therapy for years. But updating the marker didn’t make travel easier. Traveling while transgender only became more difficult.

I’m well over 6 feet tall. Unless I decide to dress extremely femme and put on a full face of makeup — to then sit for hours on a cramped, sweaty airplane — the F on my passport actually invites extra scrutiny. Because I don’t always “pass,” it frequently outs me as trans.

The U.S. State Department, in acknowledgement of the roadblocks such as these that trans, gender non-conforming, non-binary and intersex people routinely experience while traveling, recently announced that applicants for passports will soon have the option to choose X as their gender marker as an alternative to M or F.

It’s a nice symbol of support, and putting an X on a passport might really mean something to a select few. But given the trouble that often accompanies being out as non-binary, the move won’t “advance inclusion” as much as the department’s announcement claims. If the State Department really wanted to take a step forward, there’s an easier, cheaper and more powerful option: remove gender from passports altogether.

Now, the X marker could be affirming for non-binary people who do not experience or anticipate persecution related to their gender identity. It could also work for people traveling exclusively through airports that have done an excellent job training their staff about gender and the meaning of the X marker, and that have policies in place to make travel smooth for gender-diverse travelers.

These hypothetical people and places, however, will be rare. More likely, the X will cause more of the hassle trans people have become accustomed to. Every once in a while, I do “pass” with the F on my passport. If I had an X, though, extra scrutiny would be practically guaranteed. I asked a handful of non-binary friends about the upcoming change, and every one of them indicated that willingly outing themselves on their passport would mean inviting danger into their travel experience.

This is especially relevant given the waves of anti-trans legislation being passed in the United States, and even more so when international travel is considered. Trans rights are imperiled domestically, but they are in even worse shape throughout much of the world. Having an M or F — especially if one doesn’t always “pass” — can cause trouble for a transgender traveler; carrying a passport with an X on it is likely to cause more.

So why mark gender at all? Pointless gendering is a well-documented phenomenon when it comes to consumer products, but less questioned is the requirement to assert one’s gender on endless forms. Is there a legitimate reason anyone other than my doctor needs to know my gender? Does my dentist need to know? My credit-card issuer? The library? The veterinary clinic? The airline or TSA agent?

After I changed the gender marker on my driver’s license, my car insurance provider informed me that updating my records would raise my rates. I was the same person, driving the same car, with the same record. They couldn’t explain the logic of the policy – but when it comes to reporting one’s gender, logic is often absent.

Some will argue that marking gender helps institutions know how to refer to clients and customers. But the simplest and most affirming way to do that is to just ask for pronouns or honorifics instead.

The Netherlands recently took steps to remove gender from state-level legal documents; Germany and Canada have experimented with similar efforts. The United States could do the same. Stripping gender from passports would let Americans go through security or customs simply as people, without having to justify anything. Instead of classifying ever more complex slices of gender identity, we could question the primacy of gender in our lives altogether.

It might take a while. Gender is personal, meaningful and relevant to most of us; it’ll take a cultural shift to realize it can still be those things without showing up on all our documents. For now, having a passport option that reflects non-binary identity, even with the accompanying trouble, is at least better than offering only M or F. Travelers can weigh the risks and decide what works best for them.

In the future, we may live in a society that doesn’t require trans people to out ourselves at the airport. When a traveler’s gender, and that of the TSA agent who pats them down, is no longer a concern. When everyone can travel with safety and dignity. When there’s no more loaded “male or female?” — and instead, just “have a nice flight.”