Huge win: Social Security Administration modernizes gender marker policy

By Kaley Lentini, Task Force Holley Law Fellow

The LGBT community celebrates a huge win for transgender individuals today, as the Social Security Administration (SSA) announced the modernization of the medical requirements transgender people must show to update the gender marker in a person’s social security record, eliminating the archaic surgery requirement and replacing it with “appropriate clinical treatment” as several other federal agencies already have done.

SSA also issued guidelines on how staff should interact with transgender people. This includes important protections: confidentiality, proper pronoun usage, and treating transgender people with respect and dignity.

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the groundbreaking study released in 2011 by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, reported that about half of transgender people have been unable to update their gender in SSA records due to the strict requirements in effect at the time.

This is a crucial change for transgender individuals because access to employment, housing, health care and travel all can hinge on having appropriate documentation. When employers and governmental agencies like state Departments of Motor Vehicles encounter SSA document gender discrepancies while verifying a person’s identity, transgender individuals often face discrimination or other hardships. This win is particularly helpful for transgender older adults on Medicare because the gender marker on the face of Medicare ID cards is pulled directly from the Social Security database. State government agencies, including Medicaid, also often match data with SSA, causing problems for transgender people.

Because of the importance of accurate and consistent SSA documents for transgender people, this policy change was one of the Task Force’s top priorities. The Task Force collaborated with other organizations, primarily the National Center for Transgender Equality, to help secure this win through a series of meetings with SSA officials, as well as by providing legal research and policy arguments to advance this policy. National Center for Transgender Equality has put out a helpful guide to the new policy and what it means in detail to transgender people.

This policy win for the transgender community is potentially the largest federal win the community has ever had, tying or exceeding in importance the modernization of the passport policy in 2010. Approximately only one-quarter of U.S. adults have a passport while Social Security records are nearly universal. Since the Passport policy change, policies have been updated with the “appropriate clinical treatment” standard by several other federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security with regard to Green Cards and other immigration documentation, the Office of Personnel Management with regard to the personnel records of federal employees, and the Veterans Health Administration with regard to veterans’ records. One remaining federal records system that has not yet adopted this policy is the Department of Defense. However, with the new SSA policy announced today, the federal government policies are nearly uniformly using the new standard.