The Social Security Administration announced Friday that it would no longer require proof of surgery to alter the gender identification of people in its computers and records. The move mirrors similar actions by the U.S. State Department, which amended its passport application policies three years ago to do away with the sex reassignment surgery requirement. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services department, also removed its surgery requirement last year for green cards, work permits, and other documents.
Most U.S. residents don't think twice about the gender printed on their government-issued documents. But for the 0.3 percent of American adults who identify as transgender, those "M'' or "F'' markers can halt a person’s change from their birth gender to their desired gender. The law usually requires proof of sex assignment surgery and a court order to change gender on official documents, but many states are reconsidering those policies.
Due to lawsuits and lobbying, about half of U.S. states—most recently Illinois, Alaska, Virginia, and Idaho—now allow residents to revise the gender designations on their driver's licenses without first undergoing surgery or getting a judge's approval. Applicants instead must provide a letter from a health professional stating they have received counseling, hormone therapy, or another form of gender-transition treatment.
"Since 9/11, it's become … incredibly important to have accurate and consistent identification. Without it, you can't open a bank account, you can't use a credit card, you can't apply for a loan, you can't get a job, you can't vote, you can't get insurance,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Meanwhile, acquiring a new birth certificate still requires proof of surgery in all but three states: Washington, California, and Vermont. Half of states just amend existing birth certificates instead of issuing new ones, and another three states—Idaho, Tennessee, and Ohio—will not change the gender on a birth certificate under any circumstances.
In California, the first state to allow new birth certificates for transsexuals who had surgery, the Legislature are considering even softer requirements for new birth certificates. Lawmakers eliminated the surgery requirement for transsexuals to receive a new birth certificate in 2011. But this year, lobbyists want to remove requirements that citizens receive a court order or place a legal notice in a local newspaper for a new birth certificate to be issued.
Assemblyman Don Wagner voted against both bills, along with many of his fellow Republicans. Wagner said that although he empathizes with people who find the system cumbersome or cost-prohibitive, he worried that eliminating long-standing hurdles creates opportunities for identity fraud.
"There should be substantial evidence to make the change, and I feel these bills perhaps lessen that standard," he said.