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A Huge Small Step: The Obama Administration Delivers Big

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Most readers won't know that the updated policies announced last week by the Social Security Administration (SSA) are among the most humane and important public policy advancements for transgender people during the Obama administration or even ever.

Last Friday, the SSA modernized its policy to allow transgender people to change the gender designation in their Social Security records based on either a legally changed birth certificate or passport or a health care provider's confirmation of the person's transition from one gender to another -- a much more reasonable standard than requiring some specific, arbitrary medical treatment that may not be universal.

And though Social Security cards don't have sex listed on them, Medicare cards do, and what sex you are for Medicare comes straight from your Social Security records. If your SSA account says you are a man, Medicare declares you a man. So because of the updated policy, transgender older Americans won't need to out themselves every time they show their Medicare card to their doctor's receptionist or the cashier at the drug store.

Most people don't need to think too much about their ID. Your driver's license is in your wallet, your passport is in your dresser and you birth certificate is, well, you don't remember where that is, but you'll get a new one if you ever need it. You dig whatever ID out pro forma in expected situations, and you put it away until next time. Maybe you make a joke about being flattered or insulted by being carded at your age, but your ID is not a big deal. And, for most non-trans people, it's not part of a larger unfair system that seems to conspire against you daily.

But your Social Security card? That's just something you're supposed to have, and you recite the number from memory -- especially the last four digits -- often. It's not even really ID. If anything, it seems like the glue that connects all of your financial dealings. You give the number to your job, your bank, your car loan company, your cellphone carrier, your college financial aid office, the military recruiter, and, of course, the government when you pay taxes or get benefits. It is what seems to tie all of those transactions to you.

Social Security numbers were legislated to be used only for ensuring that your payroll tax contributions were assigned to the correct account, and to determine the Social Security benefits. But through decades of careless mission creep, SSNs have become the de facto mother of all ID. You cannot get a driver's license or passport or even a job -- things fundamental to living our lives -- without providing your Social Security number. The agencies or employers that issue these other documents regularly match their records with Social Security records. And because of this policy win, it is now significantly easier for transgender people to control their lives and maintain their privacy.

A lot of progress has been made for transgender people over the last 10 to 15 years, and nowhere is that more evident than in the seismic changes we have seen in federal policy during the Obama administration. The president has made it a point that all people in the country should be treated fairly by the government, and a lot has been accomplished at the federal level.

With the SSA's policy revision, the four branches of the armed services remain as the last federal institutions to rely on these harmful and arbitrary surgical requirements for updating pension and benefits records. NCTE and our allies are digging in to get that done too. But transgender people will tell you that this recent policy change by the Social Security Administration is among the most important, humane, and common-sensical.

Download our new resource, "Transgender People and the Social Security Administration," for a step-by-step guide to updating your Social Security records.