Seattle-based transgender activist Danni Askini has been rendered stateless since June 29th of this year, after being denied renewal of her U.S. passport by the State Department.
Danni has been an outspoken and highly visible transgender rights activist for many years. Until just a few days ago, Danni was the Executive Director of the Gender Justice League, a Washington State gender and sexuality civil and human rights organization headquartered right here in Seattle, Washington, which she founded in 2012. Danni has also been the National Program Director for GSA Network, the Policy Director for Basic Rights Oregon, and was the first Transgender Health Program Director at Verbena Health, where she ran the Transform Health Project. Danni has also been instrumental in ballot measure campaigns and policy reform for the LGBTQ community and has lectured at over 200 organizations and universities internationally on LGBTQ issues. In the world of human rights advocacy, campaigning and policy, Danni is a force of nature.
Danni’s strengths as an activist lie in her fighting spirit and her ability to overcome obstacles. Danni, who is 35 years young, has been through some intense ordeals in her life, including being diagnosed with a potentially fatal blood disease called Aplastic anemia. A bone marrow transplant was necessary to save her life. Just this year in April, she was rendered temporarily mute after a surgery to remove a benign tumor on her throat. Thankfully, subsequent multiple surgeries managed to restore her voice.
In the world of human rights advocacy, campaigning and policy, Danni is a force of nature.
Because of Danni’s high-profile presence as a trans rights activist, she is also no stranger to hate mail, death threats, and even in-person violence. In May and June of this year, Danni began receiving targeted anonymous email death threats through the website Guerilla Mail. These threats included photos and very detailed personal information – information that could only have been obtained through stalking – and the threats were directed not only at Danni, but also towards her loved ones. Danni reported these threats to the Seattle Police Department, only to be told that they were “too backed up” to help her. The FBI and the police recommended that Danni either hire a private security firm or purchase a gun and learn how to use it.
Soon after – the day before Trans Pride – Danni was run off the road by three young white men with buzzcuts in a green Ford pickup truck with Oregon plates. These men allegedly shouted anti-trans, anti-queer, and anti-Jew slurs at her, and are believed to be part of a local fascist/white supremacist group known as “The Proud Boys”. Danni has reported witnessing a gun on a gun rack in the back of the vehicle and believes that the only reason she was not harmed further was by the grace of other intervening drivers. Because of this dramatic increase in threat to her personal safety and that of her loved ones, Danni made the decision to leave the country and take shelter in Sweden, where she has dear friends and family.
Danni transitioned 20 years ago while a minor and in Maine’s child welfare system. All of her documents have listed her as female since the late 90’s. Danni had previously applied for and been granted a valid U.S. passport in 2007 without any issues (her second one), with all necessary documentation to prove her gender identity provided, and which had just expired in 2017.
However, when Danni went to renew her passport for her refugee trip to Sweden in June, she was met with an unexpected denial of her application. For the first time, Danni was asked to produce proof of her transition. For Danni, this was especially impossible. Because of Danni’s status in the child welfare system during her transition and the hardships she endured at that time, her documents and records are sealed and inaccessible.
Danni tried to impress upon the State Department the urgency of her departure, in fear for her own life and the lives of her family and friends, but she was flatly told that in order to leave the country she would first need to travel across the U.S. to Maine and request that her records be unsealed. Danni had already provided her birth certificate from the State of Maine that included her full legal name, her gender, her date of birth, and her place of birth (as well as providing her previous passport and driver’s license). These documents should have been sufficient proof of gender and identity to simply renew a passport that had already been vetted with the same documents.
It is important to note here that Danni was one of the consultants on the drafting of the State Department’s policy on granting transgender people’s passports during the Clinton administration, so Danni is no stranger to the appropriate policies and procedures that should be in place. Danni was not requesting to change her name or gender on her passport, and thus shouldn’t have needed to produce further documentation.
It is also worthy of note that Danni, as a Human Rights Defender fleeing violence, has certain rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders Act, of which the U.S. is a signatory. One of those rights is to seek and receive state protection – in this case, her passport so she could leave – and her already legally valid and previously accepted 2007 passport should have been produced without delay.
These documents should have been sufficient proof of gender and identity to simply renew a passport that had already been vetted with the same documents.
Instead, Danni was told over the phone by a State Department employee, “Your 2007 passport should never have been issued and was never legally valid because you fraudulently obtained it. I will send you the list of documents we need by email. Ok. Good-bye.”
Although her case is uniquely troublesome, Danni is not the only trans woman this has happened to of late. Several others have had their passports revoked retroactively, and the State Department has refused to renew them even though gender-identifying documents were already submitted and approved, claiming that they “failed to disclose” that they were transgender.
After some rallying and a plea to her U.S. Congressperson (thank you, Rep. Pramila Jayapal), Danni was able to acquire a 2-year limited “emergency” U.S. passport to leave the country and apply for political asylum, with some unusual and restrictive endorsements that prohibit Danni from actually traveling with it, because it is not a fully valid passport. One of those endorsements reads “A full validity Passport book and card may be authorized upon receipt of required documentation.” In other words, it’s not a fully legit and legal document. To add insult to injury, when, over the phone, Danni tried to explain to the officer at the State Department’s Passport Office that she was leaving for Sweden to secure her safety, she was told “they can keep you”, and was hung up on.
Danni… is unable to reenter the United States with the passport that she was given BY the U.S. government!
Thankfully, Danni was able to escape to Sweden, where she remains, but she is unable to reenter the United States with the passport that she was given by the U.S. government! Seems a bit suspect, if you ask me. Why do I say that? Because Danni is an unapologetic and outspoken crier against several pieces of anti-Transgender legislation that went to Congress while this fiasco was transpiring.
The Trump administration has made it clear that they have nothing but animosity for the trans community. The current administration has repealed Title IX guidance, issued a transgender military ban, repealed Affordable Care Act protections for trans people, and defunded federal law enforcement assistance in prosecution of anti-transgender hate crimes. The Trump administration has even banned the word “transgender” from being used in certain Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documents. All of these have passed through Congress while Danni has been incapable of being a presence in the fight against these grossly discriminatory pieces of legislature. Coincidence? Or strategic political maneuver?
The Trump administration has made it clear that they have nothing but animosity for the trans community.
I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that there was more going on here than just a silly misunderstanding with a prejudiced employee at the DMV, so I did some digging and managed to track down a few folks that are close to Danni (whose names will not be used here to protect their identity and safety). Imagine my shock when I was told by certain acquaintances of Danni’s not to follow up on this story any further, because I would end up hurt or dead! These acquaintances allege that they have received threats in multiple mediums, been frequently followed and harassed, and had their phones and computers tapped.
Not one to fall for a single story (and certainly not afraid to open Pandora’s box), I kept digging, only to be similarly warned away by a completely unrelated and separate group of people! That got my attention. A third source told this reporter that Danni has not only been warned not to attempt reentry into the U.S. by both the government and private hate groups, but has also been told with confident, threatening surety by unnamed government officials that she would not only be held with men in an ICE detention center if she steps foot on American soil again, but that she would not live to see the next sunrise.
Even if these threats are empty, Danni would be arrested, detained, and prosecuted for a federal offense, based on a discriminatory policy that treats transgender people differently than all other applicants for U.S. Passports. When asked by The Advocate for comment on her experience with the State Department, Danni said ““I believe that the Trump administration or someone in the Seattle Passport Office has targeted me politically and politicized the process for obtaining passports. Their actions and statements are not consistent with the actual letter of the code related to trans people.” Another victim of this out-of-the-blue policy, Janus Rose, agrees. “I think there’s an internal policy change to make it as difficult as possible for trans people,” she said. “The goal is to create friction. They can’t change all these laws right away, but they can make it really hard.”
Even if these threats are empty, Danni would be arrested, detained, and prosecuted for a federal offense, based on a discriminatory policy that treats transgender people differently than all other applicants for U.S. Passports.
The State Department has refused to engage in any further discourse with Danni, and Danni’s social media accounts have been on lockdown since she fled the country. Any attempt on Danni’s part to seek a resolution with the U.S. Consulate and Embassy in Sweden, the Attorney General’s office or the State Department, that would allow her legal reentry into the U.S. has been met with hostility, silence or disdain.
Danni cannot travel between other countries with her “fake” passport, cannot reenter this country legally even though she is clearly a U.S. citizen, and does not have a permanent welcome in Sweden. Her temporary Visa expired on October 9th, and she has been given a short extension by the Swedish government while she attempts to defend her case through legal aid, but that will expire soon.
The UN Human Rights Council sent a letter of investigation to the U.S. government on August 7th, about the human rights violations Danni has suffered, and to which the Trump administration has refused to respond. Follow-up letters have also been sent regarding subsequent violations. The initial letter, which contains a detailed account of their investigation findings, has been released to the public in redacted form, and can be read here: https://spcommreports.ohchr.org
With all of this mess going on, Danni has been unable to fulfill her role as Executive Director at Gender Justice League and was forced to step down as of October 9th. The position has been filled by a more-than-qualified fellow trans activist and GJL Board Member, Elayne Wiley, who also served as Deputy Director in Danni’s absence. Danni will still continue her work with GJL, as a remote strategic consultant. Danni has retained three of Sweden’s best immigration lawyers to put together a case, in the hopes of securing permanent status there. Danni, under financial duress, has posted a GoFundMe campaign to assist her with her legal bills, room and board, and food and other expenses while she continues her legal battle. You can read more about Danni’s story there, at https://www.gofundme.com/danni-askini-legal-fund.
The Federal civil rights laws that have recognized and protected transgender people are being rolled back and undone in one fell swoop.
This travesty of governmental discrimination against the transgender community continues on a broader scale, as the Trump administration commences its witch hunt to deny transgendered persons the basic rights that CIS-gendered people have come to take for granted. The Federal civil rights laws that have recognized and protected transgender people are being rolled back and undone in one fell swoop.
A recent article in the New York Times (October 21st, 2018) reports that the Trump administration is working to establish a stringent, biologically-based definition of “sex”, inserting this mitzvah in place of gender as the official term of definition to mark an individual’s gender identity. The Department of Health and Human Services is leading this charge under the guise of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on gender and gender identity in educational programs funded by government assistance.
The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with.
According to a draft obtained and reviewed by the Times, this would be “an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with”.” This effectively reverses the inclusivity of transgender identities that the Obama administration incorporated into law during its reign, which recognized that gender was largely an individual’s choice, rather than a biological determination based on sex at birth.
This proposed new definition would define sex as an unchangeable binary category based solely on the genitals a person is born with. So, if it’s not on your birth certificate, you can’t legally claim it or use it to identify your gender in any way that the government will recognize. The Department’s memo states “The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence”; thus regressing transgender rights progress by many years.
There are roughly 1.4 million Americans who identify as transgender, all of whom will cease to be recognized by the government under this proposed law. Gender identity acknowledgement in schools, prisons, health care, homeless shelters, and yes, on drivers licenses and I.D.’s, will be no more. The administration has even attempted to redact questions about gender identity from being present on the 2020 census. In fact one of the Trump administration’s first acts of policy upon taking office was to rescind Obama policy changes that protected a student’s right to use school bathrooms based on their chosen gender identity. This has led to the dismissal of several discrimination cases filed with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights by transgender students over school facilities access.
There are roughly 1.4 million Americans who identify as transgender, all of whom will cease to be recognized by the government under this proposed law.
Roger Severino, who is the director for the Office for Civil Rights at DHHS, and was also the head of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, has called Obama’s expansion of sex to include gender identity “radical gender ideology”, and a “culmination of a series of unilateral, and frequently lawless, administration attempts to impose a new definition of what it means to be a man or a woman on the entire nation.”
According to Trump administration officials, DHHS is slated to formally present this proposed definition to the Justice Department before the end of year. If the Justice Dept. makes this change legal, it will be enacted into all applicable current government laws, statutes, and agencies. A member of the former Obama Education Department, Ms. Lhamon, was quoted as saying that this proposed new definition “quite simply negates the humanity of people.”
Many people don’t think about the issue of “dead-naming” in the trans community. Regardless of what stage of transition they’re in, when a trans person solidifies their gender identity, one of the most important symbols of that identity is their chosen name. The name given to them at birth, the one that misidentifies their “living” gender, is considered “dead”. To have this right denied them by forcing them to only be recognized by their sex at birth – or even worse, to have their living gender stripped away after all they’ve endured to achieve it – is quite a crushing blow. Imagine having to select a gender you don’t identify with on every form, job application, credit check, lease agreement, I-9 and W-2 you ever fill out, for the rest of your life. This looming threat would spell disastrous and condemning consequences for the transgender population, bringing into societal question -and even overt denial- their gender-identity-appropriate pronouns, locker rooms and bathrooms. It opens the door to a bevy of discriminatory repercussions and persecutions for the transgender community, many of which are likely to result in an increase in open trans-misogyny, hate-speech and violence. We have already borne witness to the social ramifications of an administration that outspokenly encourages bigotry and prejudice.
It opens the door to a bevy of… trans-misogyny, hate-speech and violence. We have already borne witness to the social ramifications of an administration that outspokenly encourages bigotry and prejudice.
With a right-wing conservative majority in all three branches of government, and the Trump administration on a warpath to strip transgendered people of their hard-won rights, hope for the trans community is understandably bleak. Even with the hope of a crucial election looming ahead to turn the tide, the fate of many of our fellow American citizens hangs in the balance. Human and civil rights progress may well be about to take several giant leaps backwards, and the scales of justice rest precariously, and dubiously, in the hands of the Justice Department. For the transgender community and their allies and supporters, myself included, the wait to discover the government’s judgment of their fate is fear-filled and excruciating.
Human and civil rights progress may well be about to take several giant leaps backwards.
Astro (they/them) is the Editor-in-Chief of the Seattle Collegian, the President of Seattle Central's Queer Cooperative club, a fully-professed Guard with the Sisters of the Mother House of Washington, a social worker and behavioral scientist, founder of Transgender Day of Remembrance at Seattle Central (TDoR), Board Member-At-Large with Diversity Alliance of Puget Sound (DAPS), and a self-identified Queer-Alien-Person-Of-Color. They have won awards for their journalism and community service work as well as for innovation in leadership and academic excellence, and are an active and outspoken advocate and activist for both the LGBTQ+ and recovery communities. They speak regularly at events relevant to these causes, and work closely with their fellows to support these communities. Social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion are their banners, and their belief in the gifts, strengths, and resilience of all minoritized communities is the driving motivation behind their work and their mission: using the powers of journalism, self-expression, creativity, conversation and connection to uplift and foster acceptance for all peoples.