All my ducks were in a row, but it was turtles all the way down

[Posting very  short excerpts from my book, as I work on last edits to it.]

For years, I had put off doing the paperwork to change my legal sex in my Social Security records. Partly I had delayed doing this because word had it on the transgender digital street that during the administration of President George W. Bush, the SSA had tightened the requirements for changing the sex marker in one’s record.  (It had.) I had also procrastinated because this was not a bureaucratic transaction I could accomplish through the faceless anonymity of the U.S. mail. Unlike residents of, say, Nebraska, at that time residents of Brooklyn, Queens, and five other municipalities across the country had to show up in person at a “Social Security Card Center” to “strengthen the integrity of the Social Security Number.” The idea of outing myself in a face-to-face transaction with a government bureaucrat was not appealing to me. (I had already had that odd experience at the New York Department of Motor Vehicles, described in the preface.)

But by the time President Bush left the Oval Office, I had decided to get all my ducks in a row, and get the record changed.  I had developed a slightly paranoid fear that I would be denied my social security benefits at some point in the future because of a mis-match between the SSA’s record associated with the number that was assigned to me and (what I can only describe as) myself. A few years earlier,  as I was researching the history of New York City’s policy for changing the sex marker on birth certificates, in a relatively dustless archive of a medical association, I had read a letter written in 1965 by a federal official at the Division of Vital Statistics at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. He was responding to an inquiry from the head of New York City’s Bureau of Records and Statistics who had asked for his department’s input on a policy for applications for a “change of sex” on the birth certificate. In researching the question, the federal official surveyed various federal agencies and found that the “crucial problem” raised by the question concerned the status of the connection between two different files, with different names and sex markers. “Assuming that ‘x’ has undergone medical treatment [operations for “change of sex”], how do we link ‘x’ with the birth certificate?” As a researcher, it had been exciting to come across a letter, written over forty years prior, in which a federal bureaucrat consciously reflected about one of the central problems of modern state formations—how to recognize its citizens—and tied that to the question of legal sex classification. Somewhat later though, and from the perspective of myself as an economic being who hopes to receive Social Security benefits upon retirement, the idea that the SSA might not be able to connect me to my records instilled a sense of vertigo. What if the government said the Paisley Currah in their records was not me? What if “I” was not sufficiently linked with the Paisley Currah who would be the future recipient of Social Security benefits?

In 2009, the handbook for consumers on the Social Security Website explained what forms and documents one must tender for an ordinary “change of information” request, including changing one’s name or correcting one’s date of birth. Change of legal sex presumably fell under this “change of information” category, but there weren’t any particular instructions for that. Digging deeper, I came upon the SSA’s online manual for its field officers, Programs Operations Manual System (POMS).  There, under the heading, “Changing Numident Data for Reasons other than Name Change,” I found what I needed. SSA field officers are instructed: “Sex-Operation: Applicant must submit a letter from his or her surgeon or the attending physician verifying that the sex change surgery was completed. All documents must clearly identify the NH.”[iv] NH is the acronym for Numident Holder; Numident is a short form of Numerical Identification System. “My” number, my file, is the Numident; I am merely the Numident Holder. If my request was successful, the regulations state, “a new record showing the new data is appended to the prior record(s) on the Numident.” My identity in this federal database would not be erased but augmented—the records of the male “Paisley Alan Currah” would be appended to prior records of the female “Paisley Ann Currah.”  While the Social Security Administration has not yet identified a solution to the larger epistemological uncertainty hovering over the link my SSA files and myself—or, more precisely, the link between the Numident and the presumptive Numident Holder—at least “my” different records would be connected administratively.

The documents the SSA required for me to change my information were filed away at home. I filled out Form SS-5, “Application for a Social Security Card,” which is used for new cards as well as for change of information, checked the box marked “Male,” wrote in my new name and my old name, and went downtown to 625 Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn to get the deed done. When I arrived, about fifty people were already in line, waiting to get through metal detectors before going up to the sixth floor where the card center is actually located. Three armed guards from a private security firm periodically broadcast directives to us Numident Holders and would-be Numident Holders—no food, no drink except for water or infant formula, no alcohol, no weapons of any kind, no tools.

Up on the sixth floor, the wait was much shorter. When I was called to window #21, I passed my SS-5, through the slot below the window. “Is this for a new card?” the field officer asked through the window’s intercom system. This was the moment I had been dreading. “I’m just updating the information on the card, the gender and the name,” I responded, wondering if any clients at nearby windows could hear me. I was instructed to slide my documents over, which included my passport as proof of identity, proof of my name change, and a notarized letter from a surgeon.  The clerk first looked at the order from the Civil Court of the City of New York granting me “the right to assume the name of Paisley Alan Currah”—this was a familiar document. (I had already changed my name on my old passport and driver’s license—Paisley Ann Currah—to Paisley Alan Currah, and also my sex classification on both documents.) After she’d skimmed it, she ran her hand over the last page to feel for the court’s seal. She turned to the next document, the doctor’s letter. It stated that, “Psychological and medical testing has been carried out to determine the patient’s true gender. In the case of Paisley Currah, this was determined to be male.” It also stated the patient had undergone “surgical procedures…to irreversibly alter his anatomy and appearance to that of a male.” This document, which was only five sentences long, took this field officer what seemed like quite some time to read.

After a few long minutes, the officer looked up, smiled, and said, “All right, I’m just going to check this out, verify it, and we’re good.” She left the window in search of a supervisor, or at least someone who knew what to do with my request. After wandering from one end of the long glassed-in area to the other at least three times, she finally found someone to advise her—the field officer at window 25. They consulted for a few minutes, looking over my documents together.  Before my field officer returned to the window, she photocopied my documents.  “Okay, it’s all checked out, and we’re good.” She started typing away at the computer, making changes. She looked up once to inform me that my immigration status had never been updated. “I can fix that right now.” The friendliness level had ratcheted up significantly. She was now super helpful and I was super appreciative. When she was done, she had me sign a form consenting to all the changes to my record and returned all the originals and a receipt to me. I thanked her and skedaddled out of there.

It was, but for the long wait, the security checks, and the suspense at window 21, a relatively painless exercise. I had done what conscientious “numident holders” are supposed to do to keep their information up to date. I had figured out the proper procedure, filled out the form, waited patiently in a long line, and proffered the right documents to the Social Security Administration. And since domestication/recognition involves mutuality, the federal government, at least this particular agency in this particular case, had assented to my request for recognition. My sex classification had been changed to reflect the changes to my body described in the doctor’s letter, my name had been changed, even my citizenship status had been updated. All my ducks were in a row, but it was turtles all the way down.

From the beginning of the chapter on states and sex classification. 

 

 

 

Take a Seat, Mr. Feminist Man

(This is NOT apropos of the moment–this was written about the Kavanaugh hearings.  But I wanted to gather my thoughts from a Facebook post and thread to have them in one place.  I’m working this weekend on a piece about Trump and the politics of sex classification.)

You know one thing the world doesn’t need right now? Holier-than-thou trans men soulfully mansplaining to cis men about the #metoo movement. For those of us binary trans masculine folks, this is not the moment to usurp women’s voices.

Not only does this sort of posturing suggest trans men are feminist angels, posting such nonsense seems really to be about the expectation that we should not only thanked–which is bad enough–but even praised for not being assholes. And what is more feminist-bro behavior than that?

Trans men taking advantage of this moment to let the world know that we aren’t like other men, that we’re some sort of exception, are in the minority, thankfully. But coming across it in social media is still cringe-worthy. If you’re white and pass, you can’t transition and then pretend you don’t have the social power that masculinity confers. Let’s listen to the people who lack that social power.  Take a seat, boys.

 

Why Trump’s ban on trans people serving in the military matters to trans civilians

I know some trans people aren’t interested the fight over Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military. But, as I learned Friday at the Transgender Law Institute, if the ban is upheld by the Supreme Court, its effects will go far beyond the armed forces. According to Shannon Minter, “the negative ramifications of a loss in the courts will be terrible.” Minter is the Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which, with GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders, is challenging the ban in the courts.

A little background: In June of 2016, the Department of Defense announced that transgender people could serve openly in the military. The military would also provide transition related medical care.

Six months into his first term, Trump announced via (where else) Twitter that the ban would be put back in place.

The same massive bureaucratic apparatus that had, after a year of research, found the ban irrational and developed a thorough implementation plan for allowing trans people to serve openly and provide transition related medical care was forced to do a 180 degree turn and come up with a justification for reversing the policy.

And did it ever. In February of this year, Secretary of Defense James Mattis released a report that recommended reinstating the ban. Most of the arguments supporting the recommendation were boilerplate right wing drivel: the ideas of people with penises showering with women, the “disproportionate cost” of provision of transition related care, and ye olde “unit cohesion” defense.  Trans rights advocates have lots of experience responding to these tired canards. You can see how they do so in reply briefs here and here.

The fourth justification is the most worrisome. It takes state-sponsored transphobia to new heights by questioning the very validity of transition-related medical care as a treatment for gender dysphoria. In our brave new post-truth world, Mattis’s underlings cherry-picked unfounded, unpublished, and highly selective research to suggest that hormone therapy and/or surgery do little to help transgender people.

This argument jibes with the right wing’s anti-transgender agenda, most clearly articulated in Ryan Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), which suggests that transgender people need compassion, but not equal treatment or transition related medical care. You can see this agenda in the new Department of Defense policy: “Transgender persons” without a diagnosis gender dysphoria can serve in their “biological sex.”  (Biological sex here means sex assigned at birth.) According to the report, the policy is not a ban on trans people per se, just a ban on people who happen to share the defining characteristic of transgender people–a disconnect between one’s gender identity and the sex assigned at birth.

A reasonable person might think that truth will ultimately prevail, that a policy that ignores the medical and psychiatric consensus and that discounts the lived experiences of hundreds of thousands of transgender people cannot stand. But this is the same administration that changed the rules to allow asbestos, a known carcinogen, into new products. This is the same administration that has proposed rolling back fuel economy standards, despite the fact that its justification is a “denial of basic science.”

Eventually, these cases will be heard by the Supreme Court. If the Court decides that the ban is constitutional, it won’t just affect those who want to serve in the military. The Court’s imprimatur on a report that rejects the idea that surgery and hormones are effective treatments for gender dysphoria will have alarming ripple effects in every area where advocates are working to ensure that trans people get the medical care they need, from prisons to workplaces to public benefit programs such as Medicaid and Medicare. If the Court ultimately sides with the Department of Defense, the transition-related health care of those of us not in the military could well be affected. The Court’s opinion would certainly be used to justify decisions not to pay for surgery or hormones.

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I want to put the Department of Defense policy in a larger historical context. Before Trump, transgender people were harmed by sex classifications in laws and policies designed to give men more rights and resources or to use M/F for surveillance purposes in descriptions in state records and on identity documents. As I argue in my forthcoming book, trans people were not the intended targets of these policies, we just found ourselves occupying the residual category of legal sex classifications—we’re what the system didn’t anticipate. Even though it’s no longer constitutional to treat men and women differently, classifying people as M or F is still baked into law and policy.

That’s why the battle in the first decades of the transgender rights movement has been to show that the category of women includes trans women and vice versa, that sex and gender discrimination laws cover trans people, that the M or F assigned at birth might not turn out to be the right one for the individual. Over time, these efforts have started to succeed and courts, administrative agencies, and legislatures are coming around. Of course there has been resistance, but it has been gradually evaporating as a result of education and the immense number of trans people coming out.

But the ground has shifted with the Trump administration. Now transgender advocates are no longer fighting accidental erasure. While previous conservative administrations took a more passive approach by simply not supporting trans rights, Trump and Pence are working to codify transphobia by enshrining it in policy across as many agencies as possible. (Their efforts were anticipated by attempts in red state legislatures to make bathroom access based on the sex assigned at birth.) With the Department of Defense policy, transgender issues have been politicized to a degree never yet seen. (Okay, I am overstating the difference in transphobia before and after Trump a little, but the I do think 2017 marked a real shift.)

One might argue that transgender rights movement lost something when it was packaged as a new identity politics group. Absent a handful of historical contingencies—transphobia among second wave feminists, the intensity of the pathologization of transsexuality, Reagan, the revanchist 1980s and the move to assimilate to the norms of the market–it might have been possible to articulate equality for people whose gender identity or expression confounded traditional expectations with broader movements for distributive justice. Socialist feminism, with its attention to bodies, the imbrication of capitalism and gender norms, and the material conditions that make life livable, would have been a better option.

In any case, identity politics, meshing neatly with neoliberalism, was to provide a path to acceptance into the status quo. The neoliberal contract with identity politics was to guarantee formal inclusion, representation, and political equality in exchange for abandoning more radical claims to justice. Writing about black movements for equality, Asad Haider suggests identity politics is “the neutralization of movements against racial oppression.” And the same could be said, has been said, about transgender identity politics.

But the Trump/Pence administration has upended all that, it has canceled the contract. Working closely with the organized religious right, trans identity itself has become a target, as the DoD report makes clear. The trans rights movement now finds itself in the unenviable position of fighting the right wing’s policitization of trans identity with a politics that was conceived when diversity and inclusion were considered positive values. It might be time to shift to a new terrain.