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.