The Immigration and Naturalization Officer told me my documents were “not acceptable.”
When I presented him with my state ID and name-change documents, in a cavernous room with gray walls, lit flat by fluorescent lights, the INS officer, a gray haired white man, told me: “We need proof from a doctor you’ve had your operation.”
I socially and legally transitioned the same year George W. Bush came into office in 2001, the year I also became eligible for American citizenship, the year the September 11 attacks made it harder to be an immigrant, let alone transgender. A documented immigrant from the Philippines, I went to Immigration and Naturalization Services early that year to change the name and gender information on my green card, a necessary step for me to naturalize and claim a U.S. passport as a woman. I brought my hard-won Massachusetts State ID, social security card, and name change documents, all reflecting my new name and gender.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the officer concluded, loud enough so that everyone around could hear. A federal employee might get in trouble for using slurs to refer to clients, but there were no repercussions for using “sir” to refer to a trans woman, as several authorities did during my transition process. “There’s nothing I can do here.”
It didn’t matter that a state agency had ratified my womanhood. And I suspected from the look on the officer’s oddly smooth, unsmiling face that he wouldn’t sympathize with the fact that I was planning to have reassignment surgery in Thailand, but didn’t want to travel there with male documents while presenting as a woman. I was one of the privileged ones who wanted and could afford the surgery to define my gender as legible to federal authorities, and yet I needed first to endure the embarrassment of male documents to do it, the prospect of presenting multiple people with my male passport while appearing to be female, at a time when there was so much more intolerance against transgender people than there is now. (Asked for comment, a representative from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, one of the successor agencies to INS, said that "due to privacy concerns, USCIS can't discuss the details of individual immigration cases," and cited current USCIS policy, updated in 2012, stating that proof of sexual reassignment surgery is not required to update permanent resident cards for transgender people.)
In the wake of Trump's election, transgender Americans are scrambling to obtain U.S. passports and other federal documents that reflect their gender. Many of them have only been openly transgender during a relatively affirming Obama administration and have no idea what to expect from an administration hostile to LGBT rights. People who have not undergone this process have no idea how terrifying it can be to be alone as you meet gatekeeper after gatekeeper who could deny you services and humiliate you at any moment without consequence.
As someone who tried to obtain those documents during the last Republican presidency, I anticipate that transgender Americans may not simply face legal obstacles, but also the possibility that the people charged with providing federal services may openly despise them, and feel no compunction in expressing their hostility given the president’s own antipathy towards minorities.
It’s unclear whether Trump would keep the current passport rules adopted by the Obama administration in 2010, under Hillary Clinton’s direction as secretary of state. Trump has already indicated he would rescind Obama-era directives barring discrimination against trans people in education and health care, and is in favor of leaving trans-related matters to individual states, a principle that if applied would leave transgender people legally unprotected in many parts of the country.
Rather than requiring surgery, the 2010 rules only ask for a doctor’s letter stating that a trans person has undergone “appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition.” This change has had significant practical effects for transgender people, especially for those who live in states that continue to require surgery to amend legal identification.
But just as disturbing as rescinding trans-affirming rules, and even more likely, is the possibility that federal employees in charge of processing trans people’s papers will be free to express their transphobic sentiments without consequence, or even refuse to enforce trans-affirming rules, given that their own president has disparaged minorities at whim. As many marginalized groups who have interacted with state authorities can attest, rules on paper mean nothing when the people in charge don’t intend to enforce them. Obama set an example of inclusion, not only with his regulations, but in his words and actions. Given Trump’s example, I have no faith in federal authorities treating minority groups, and transgender people in particular, fairly or respectfully during his administration.
After my own experience with the INS in 2001, I endured the indignity of going to Thailand with my male Philippine passport in 2002 to get reassignment surgery. I could have gone back with the doctor’s note that ratified my womanhood afterward, but I found myself too traumatized to go through all the steps necessary to become a U.S. citizen, to have to face all those people and endure their judgment of my gender identity alone, not knowing if I would even get what I wanted, under a Bush administration that was particularly unfriendly towards everything I am—trans, immigrant, person of color.
So instead, I didn’t leave the country for nearly a decade, too scared to go back to the INS, and just as scared to travel as a man. I missed my brother’s funeral in the Philippines in 2005 because I didn’t have my papers in order, and yet I still couldn’t bring myself to risk the hostility of federal authorities. It was not until after the rules changed that I was able to naturalize in 2012. I still found myself needing to go back to the INS with a pro bono lawyer, even though I was perfectly capable of following the procedures on my own and had no arrest record—a straightforward case. But I needed the lawyer there, to know there was someone on my side, in case the officer refused to follow the law, or to treat me with a modicum of respect.
This time, a black woman greeted me when I came to the counter with my lawyer, and asked me to hand her my papers through a glass window. She didn’t need to be reminded of the law, and she maintained her pleasant smile as she read through my file and understood that I was transgender, and I would be filing for citizenship soon after changing the information on my green card. She wished me good luck as she handed back my papers. A few months later, I would traverse another cavernous room full of cubicles, to go before another INS officer for my naturalization test, and her light Russian accent comforted me as I realized that she too probably came to the U.S. as an immigrant. I capably answered her U.S. civics questions, like the names of my current senators and the definition of a constitutional amendment.
“One last thing, and I’m sorry to have to ask you this,” she then said, and I held my breath, expecting her to compel me to clarify my gender history. It’s not supposed to be their business, nor should it form any basis about their decisions about my citizenship. But I know from experience that people who control my future as a trans person, whether medical or legal, psychological or economic, have the power to ask me whatever they want, and it’s easier to sacrifice my sense of privacy and dignity over being denied the practical needs they offer. So I was prepared to answer her curious questions about my life, my transition, even my genitals, just so I could leave that office with naturalization papers that bore my name and gender, hoping that I wouldn’t need to deal with hostile authorities prying into my private life again.
“You have a literature degree so it’s kind of embarrassing, but you have to prove that you can write in English,” she continued as she leaned over her desk. She then took out a form and asked me to write in a rectangular box, “I live in the United States.”
I wonder if other trans and immigrant applicants getting their green cards and passports in their desired gender will still be treated this way, as equal human beings deserving of respect, regardless of their status or gender identity.
Initiatives have popped up like the Trans Relief Project to help trans citizens to get the necessary funds and guidance to get or update their passports and other federal documents. But trans people will certainly continue to interact with state and federal systems under Trump. If the population at large makes its support heard for the lives and dignity of trans people, whether through large actions like protests and rallies, or personal gestures of support, it can empower them to fight for their dignity and fair treatment. It might also convince authorities that they cannot mistreat minorities with impunity under a Trump administration.