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Social Security Administration Removes Surgery Requirement to Change Gender Marker

By Sierra Angel

Good news for trans* residents of the United States this week as the Social Security Administration has lifted the requirement of sex reassignment surgery for changing a gender marker. They join other federal agencies like the U.S. State Department and the Veterans Health Administration as well as various state agencies in recognizing the reality of transgender lives. Of course there is no gender marker on a Social Security card, but a persons gender is logged in the SSA system and can be used for various purposes in determining benefits especially when relating to marriage.

“Most people may not see this as a big deal, but transgender people know that this seemingly small technical change will protect their privacy and give them more control over their own lives” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. I spent a bit of time on a conference call with representatives from the National Center for Transgender Equality on Wednesday to learn a bit more about the policy changes and to get simple answers to some pressing questions I had. Luckily most of the answers I was looking for were covered in the initial briefing.

So fist of all, why change the marker? This I think is a valid question, though it may seem obvious to some. Of course as trans* people we value our privacy as much as anyone else, especially concerning our birth gender. In my personal experience as a thirty something trans* person, however, I find that third party records that contain my old social security information are more often referenced than the up to date data actually held by the SSA. For instance although I changed my name legally and updated my information with the SSA, credit reporting agencies still show “Cliff” as the owner of my number, not “Sierra”. The led to my having to out myself to a car salesman in an office full of people recently. They thought I was trying to use someone else’s identity and were going to deny me the loan, and in order to get my car I had to out myself and explain the discrepancy.

This also resulted in my recent application for a state contractors license to be denied for the same reason. State records show my social security number registered to my old name, and my old business. I was forced to call and out myself to the lady at the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, mail her copies of my new social security card and legal name change paperwork, and wait a good while longer for my approval. So will changing your gender marker with the SSA help alleviate these issues? No. Changing your gender marker with the SSA will do no more than changing my name did thanks to third party referencing. You will still get denied, outed, and frustrated. Unless you are applying for benefits from the SSA or other federal agencies. Federal agencies are far more likely to check the data with the SSA than a third party.

So in short, changing your marker is likely an important part of your social transition especially when applying for federal benefits or aid, but this policy change does not fix a lot of things that are currently broken within the system. In my mind these entities using third party data instead of going right to the SSA is a huge flaw and will continue to be a huge issue for trans* people.

If you do wish to change this record you may now do so without having had sex reassignment surgery. The new policy language regarding gender is as follows (read the full details here):

Accept any of the following:

  • full-validity, 10-year U.S. passport with the new sex

NOTE: Do not accept passports with less than ten years of validity.;

  • State-issued amended BC with the new sex;

  • court order directing legal recognition of change of sex;

  • medical certification of appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition in the form of an original signed statement from a licensed physician (i.e., a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.)). The statement must include the following:

    • physician’s full name;

    • medical license or certificate number;

    • issuing state, country, or other jurisdiction of medical license or certificate;

    • address and telephone number of the physician;

    • language stating that the individual has had appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition to the new gender (male or female);

    • language stating the physician has either treated the individual in relation to the individual’s change in gender or has reviewed and evaluated the medical history of the individual in relation to the individual’s change in gender and that the physician has a doctor patient relationship with the individual;

    • language stating “I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the United States that the forgoing is true and correct.” \

So, much like getting my marker changed on my drivers license in the State of Montana, a letter from a doctor stating you are under his/her care for appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition is all you will need. The SSA even provides sample letter text for your doctor. They have made it rather easy to do, but my main question was how would this impact my marriage and possible future benefits payable to my spouse?

The language on this is a bit less clear, and much of it falls into a weird limbo between state and federal law. Generally though, if you are legally married as an opposite sex couple before transition you can feel fairly safe about the status of your marriage. In other words they cannot take away your marriage or benefits payable due to transition. Couples who are married after transition however might still face issues thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act. (more details on how SSA determines marital status can be found here).

The National Center for Transgender Equality has provided a resource to answer some of these basic questions. (It can be found here).

In the end this is not a sweeping fix to a multi pronged problem, but instead one piece of a huge puzzle that must still be put together to allow trans* people to assimilate into society. Despite the limit of its scope, the policy changes of the SSA may prompt other agencies at the state and federal level to change and update their outdated policies, and this domino effect could have a very meaningful impact over time.

Sierra Angel is a 34 year old transgender woman who is married to her high school sweetheart. Together they are raising their children in a small town in the Rocky Mountains. She is an LGBTQ rights activist, computer junkie, outdoor enthusiast and nerd girl extraordinaire. When she is not stirring up trouble on the internet or hiking in the woods she works for non-profit organizations that help others.

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