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. 




Obama, homonationalism, sex classification

So, a short piece I wrote has just been published in a special symposium section on the 2012 elections in Theory & Event.The essay, “Homonationalism, State Rationalities, and Sex Contradictions,” is in no way a paen to Obama or his neoliberal agenda, but neither is it a typical rehash of the homonormative critique. (It does, though, explain what’s meant by homonormative, heteronormative, and homonational and go over each term’s provenance.) I try to move the discussion sideways, suggesting we displace the mainstream LGBT rights crowd and the queer left’s tendency to fetishize  “the state.”

Spending most of my (unfortunately rare) research time poking through agency rules on sex classification, state court decisions on “transgender marriages,” and the “freeze-frame” policy governing incarcerated trans people, I can’t help but see a much more jumbled, complex picture.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the piece:

“While the queer critiques of homonormative and homonationalist agendas are more complex than the GLB mainstream’s celebration of recent victories, the emphasis on the interpellation of queer subjects through national biopolitical projects tends to frame the discussion around activities regulated by the federal government (commerce, war, immigration, national security, etc.) and national discourses of American identity (marriage and family). In doing so, this scholarship tends to overemphasize a unity of intention on the part of state actors and to imagine the “the state” as far more monolithic than it is. Similarly, while gay rights advocates have been forced to battle official homophobia at the state and local levels, they seek a singular, all powerful, champion to resolve the problem once and for all at the federal level. One act of Congress could end employment discrimination everywhere; one Supreme Court ruling could rid us of the patchwork quilt of laws and constitutional amendments on marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnership.”

“However, construing the election as presenting a choice between Obama the good and Romney the bad [the mainstreams LGBT position], or as a battle between Obama the not-so-great and Romney the bad [the queer left], elevates grand narratives and concepts—marriage, the state—over the thousands of ongoing and quotidian decisions that regulate life. That simplification is understandable. It’s certainly much easier to talk about same-sex marriage than to do archival excavations of applications of SSA policy, to delve into the cracks and crevices of the regulatory state apparatuses….Becoming swept up in the romance, or tragedy, of the electoral narrative, gets in the way of understanding the minute technologies of governance that regulate our lives.”

I simply can’t reduce all that I’ve found (apologies for the empiricism here) into a singular narrative–be it one of progress or not (the other being, what, something like neoliberalism in the age of declining empire).  What I can say, though, is that different decisions on sex classification represent different state projects. Sometimes those projects are contradictory.

Hats off to  Steven Johnston, of the University of Utah, for organizing the symposium and the convivial post-election conference in Utah.  You can see my piece and the other symposium contributions–including Paulina Ochoa Espejo on Obama and the Dream Act, Robyn Marasco  on “Romnesia,” and Michaele Ferguson on women as an interest group (not!)–in Theory & Event, Vol. 16, no. 1. Email me if you’d like to read it but don’t have access to Project Muse.

Next up…something on the Court, same-sex marriage, federalism, and–to add something new to this discussion–sex classification.

Media flare up on Virginia groom-groom marriage

Va. Accidentally Marries Two Men,” headlines a story by Dionne Walker in the AP wire. Two individuals the state of Virginia later classified as male got married in March. When one of them, Justine McCain, went to court to change her legal name to “Penelopsky Aaryonna Goldberry” officials realized that McCain’s legal first name was actually Justin, and that her birth gender was male. I’m using this media anecdote as a teaser into the more dense legal stuff in a chapter I’m working on for my book, The United States of Gender: Regulating Transgender Identities.

Of course, the VA officials and the media had a hard time getting their minds around this, even though a story like this erupts in the mainstream every few months, it seems. But there are a couple of points I want to put a little pressure on for this analysis. First of all, the idea of an “illegal marriage,” a phrase used by the reporter and the marriage commissioner she quotes. A marriage can be invalid, improperly executed, later annulled, but “illegal”? That’s an incoherent concept from a legal point of view. But that something is muddled as a technical concept doesn’t stop it from gaining traction in the popular imagination. (Like “illegal” alien.)

Another point of interest: “A prosecutor says the decision to press charges could turn on whether the pair knowingly misled officials…If the bride was transgender, and identified as a woman, it is unclear whether the marriage would be consider illegal.” So, if it were two individuals legally classified as male and also identified as men themselves, then the prosecutor says charges would be brought. (What charges? “Fraud”? “False personation”? ) But if Justine can be classified as transgender, if she identifies as a woman, then that might not result in the same sort of charges for an “illegal” marriage–perhaps just further civil litigation about determining her legal sex for purposes of marriage in Virginia. So the state’s response depends on what she says about her gender identity. A same-sex marriages draws possible fraud charges; a transgender marriage might be challenged under a different logic, but not fraud. (Of course, I doubt the prosecutor would actually pursue fraud charges, but the initial reaction is what I’m interested in here.)

This is how it goes. I start off wanting to make a simple point about something or other related to the legal regulation of sex, but it’s never simple…bodies of all sorts, unexpected gender identities, different state rules in different jurisdictions.