June, 2013 was a big month for marriage. First, everyone was waiting for the Supreme Court to come down with their decision, then talking about what it meant when it did come down. It was a big moment for same-sex couples, but lost in all the excitement was a significant advance for transgender people: as of June 14, the Social Security Administration is no longer requiring trans people to have had surgery in order to have the gender on their records updated. Under the new policy, applicants need only present an amended birth certificate, a passport, a court document recognizing the new gender, or a doctor's statement that they've undergone "appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition." Similar changes have been made by the State Department and the Veterans Health Administration in the last few years.
The vaguest and perhaps most intimidating part of the new policy is the phrase "appropriate clinical treatment." What's appropriate, and who gets to make that call? The National Center for Transgender Equality says that the policy leaves that up to the applicant's health care provider. According to an NCTE resource paper, "No specific type of treatment is required, and details of your treatment should not be included in the letter from your physician to SSA."
It's kind of easy to understand why this news item didn't get a lot of play in the media: it's about as easy to make exciting headlines out of Social Security regulations as it is to write about the thrilling drama of watching the third coat of paint dry on the wall of your rec room.
But civil rights gains are often made of such seemingly banal details. One of the most immediate consequences of last week's ruling against DOMA was not a surge in orders for wedding cakes, but the cancellation of deportation proceedings against Steven Brooks, a Columbian man whose husband Sean is an American citizen. That happened within 30 minutes of the ruling.
For transgender activists, the change in SSA regulations offers similar legitimacy to their lives and opens doors to many basic resources. On her blog TransGriot, trans activist Monica Roberts wrote, "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."
The new rules are also a great boon for the privacy of trans people. Official identification forces trans people to out themselves on a regular basis if their gender presentation doesn't match what's on the ID. While it's hard enough for trans people to come out intentionally to family and friends, a mismatched identification card means that they have to come out repeatedly to strangers: police officers, TSA guards, potential employers, and anyone else who asks for an official ID. Some activists and writers have compared it to being forced to carry around a card that says "gay" or "hetero."
Although the new regulations are a big step forward for trans people in America, Australia has gone even a step beyond that. As of July 1, the government is allowing citizens the option to choose a third gender on official documents. If a person identifies as neither male nor female, they can choose "X" as their gender, which is a catch-all for "Indeterminate/Intersex/Unspecified."
The Organisation Intersex International Australia (OII) released a statement endorsing the new guidelines, saying that they "speak accurately about intersex people, transgender people, and gender diverse people. They are respectful towards intersex people, and also towards trans people and gender diverse people _ acknowledging also the existence of trans people who do not identify with a binary gender. They acknowledge our distinctive characteristics, and also the needs that we share in common.... They acknowledge that intersex is not a gender identity and that we may have any gender identity."
The X designation has actually been available on Australian passports since 2010; the changes expand the option to all government documents which collect gender information.