This month’s roundup includes several American celebrities making passport news around the world! We’ve got more than just celebrity news, though. We’ll also review the latest news about gender representation on US passports, and ponder the question of whether a passport-issuing computer can be racist!
Rapper Mos Def Leaves South African Home Over Passport Issues
Hip-hop star Mos Def, who now goes by the name Yasiin Smith Bey, has been living in South Africa since 2013. His passport issues first hit the news in January, when he was arrested at Cape Town International Airport. Bey had attempted to board a flight to Ethiopia using a “World Passport” issued by the World Security Authority. Although he is a US citizen and holds a US passport, he chose not to use his US passport for political reasons.
The World Passport was created by the World Government of World Citizens. This organization, headquartered in Washington, DC, wishes to offer people an alternative to claiming citizenship of any specific nation. They claim that by holding their World Passport, the bearer is entitled to all rights detailed in the United Nation’s 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. The World Passport was originally meant for refugees unable to receive a passport from their home country or country of residence. More than a million people now hold World Passports, both refugees and people like Yasiin Bey who choose not to associate with their country of citizenship.
Bey was arrested at the airport for attempting to use his World Passport to leave the country. He’d most recently entered South Africa using his US passport, and should have used the same passport to depart. He was charged with misrepresenting himself, having a false identity, and presenting documentation that was not issued by a legal authority. In the ten months since his arrest, Bey has been prevented from leaving South Africa. He was finally allowed to depart South Africa — using his US passport — on November 22.
The South African government has dropped the charges against him, but have officially labeled Bey an “undesirable person.” He is no longer allowed to enter South Africa without a visa.
Actor Steven Seagal Gets Russian Passport From Putin
A US passport wasn’t enough for actor Steven Seagal, either. On November 25, the action film star accepted a Russian passport directly from the hands of Vladimir Putin!
Seagal, who is most famous for his roles in ’90s action films like Under Siege, has been a frequent visitor to Russia. He’s been vocal in his admiration of Vladimir Putin, calling him one of the world’s great leaders. He accepted the Russian passport from Putin in a ceremony at the Kremlin, bowing and then formally signing his new Russian passport.
According to Seagal, he has no intention of denouncing his US citizenship, but will just hold dual citizenship with Russia. Putin has announced that offering Seagal citizenship was a signal of goodwill towards the United States, and that he wants it to be a step towards normalizing relations.
Federal Judge Rules in Favor of Non-Binary Gender Option on Passports
Dana Zzyym, a US Navy veteran, has been involved in a long lawsuit against the US State Department. Zzyym was denied a passport because they refused to select either male or female on the passport application. Zzyym is intersex (what used to be called “hermaphrodite”) and chooses not to identify as either male or female. The aim of Zzyym’s lawsuit against the State Department is to change the requirement of selecting either male or female, and to have passport applications offer a non-binary gender option. In late November, a federal judge ruled in Zzyym’s favor, and urged the State Department to offer a non-binary gender option.
Several other countries, including India, Denmark, and Australia, already offer options other than M or F as the gender markers on passports. A non-binary option such as X would be of benefit not just to intersex people like Zzyym, but also people who are transgender or gender non-conforming.
The State Department has not made any indication that they will be changing the gender options on US passports, but if they do, you’ll hear it from us first!
Is a New Zealand Passport Computer Racist?
In our final story, we’ll consider the case of New Zealand citizen Richard Lee. Lee had trouble renewing his passport recently. New Zealand has an online passport application that also requires the applicant to upload their photograph. The photograph is reviewed by the web application to see if it meets official standards. This is where Lee had problems. Even though his photo was the right size, had good lighting, and a plain white background, the program wouldn’t accept his photo. The system thought that Lee, who is of Asian descent, had his eyes closed! In fact, Lee’s eyes were open — he just happens to have almond-shaped eyes. This story hit the news hard, with many sources suggesting that the passport program is racist for not accounting for Asian features.