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Trans people scramble to update paperwork before Trump takes office

Marlo Mack's daughter with her baby doll.
Marlo Mack
Marlo Mack's daughter with her baby doll.

Before I enrolled my daughter in public school two years, I raced to get her official documents changed. It’s one of the rites of passage for parents of trans kids. 

You get a letter from the pediatrician, stating that your child is indeed transgender, and is receiving appropriate medical care for her condition. You go to court, pay $171, and stand before a judge, hoping you won’t get one of the hostile ones you’ve heard about who don’t believe in transgender children.  

Marlo Mack is creator of How to be a Girl. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

At the end of the process, I held in my hands the holy grail of identity documents: A revised birth certificate. And I used that document to enroll my daughter in school as a girl, because that’s what she is. And now I don’t have to worry every day about what might happen if the teacher’s out sick and there’s a sub.

I thought we were set. The only document I hadn’t changed was her Social Security card, but that didn’t seem like a big rush. It’s not like she was going to go out and get a job at 8 years old.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The \"holy grail\" for this mom: a revised birth certificate for her trans daughter.", "fid": "132768", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201701/birth-certificate.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Marlo Mack"}]]Plus, things seemed to be really changing for the better. In the past few years we’ve started to see positive media coverage of transgender people. Last year, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to use the word “transgender” in a State of the Union address.

In 2013, with an executive order, Obama made it easier to change your gender with the Social Security administration.

Prior to that, you had to show that you had undergone sex-reassignment surgery in order to alter your Social Security record.  Transgender kids certainly can’t — and shouldn’t — be having surgery, so that means three years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to change my daughter’s Social Security record.

It’s this kind of thing that has made me thank my lucky stars, over and over again, for our timing, for the fact that my daughter wasn’t born ten or five, or even three years earlier, when the world just wasn’t ready for her.

And I always assumed things would just keep on getting better. That is, until last November.

Donald Trump the campaigner was wishy-washy on trans issues, but Trump the president-elect doesn’t seem to be — at least if you look at his top appointments. From the Vice President-elect Pence on down, they read like a who’s-who of the anti-LGBT political establishment, staunchly opposed to gay marriage, supporting anti-trans bathroom bills, and even openly mocking my child’s deeply felt identity.  

Like Ben Carson, appointed to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who said: “For thousands of years, mankind has known what a man is and what a woman is, and now we don’t know anymore.”  

It took just the stroke of a pen for Obama to transform federal policy and allow my daughter to change the gender on her Social Security record.

And it would take just the stroke of a pen for the next president to take that away. Or worse.

The window opened by Obama’s executive order in 2013 very well may be about to close. So I started scrambling, and I wasn’t the only one.  

My friend, I’ll call her Amelia, has a transgender daughter the same age is mine.

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“Everybody’s panicking, that’s what it feels like to me,” she said. “Our poor doctors are all flooded right now though. You know, I tried to get ahold of my kid’s pediatrician the other day, and he’s so swamped right now with everybody wanting to get certificates changed and letters from the doctor.”

“I’ve just had this urge to want to hide my child,” I said to Amelia. “In every possible way, officially, with all the documents. I hate that I have to be scared. I can’t assume that the federal government, or any government, is going to have our back, and protect her rights.”

“Welcome to minority status,” Amelia said. “I feel like we woke up from our privilege.”

A local transgender advocacy group called the Gender Justice League announced a free legal clinic where you could talk to an attorney about how to change your name and gender on official documents. I decided to go and see if they could help clarify how to change my child’s Social Security record.

The clinic was packed, mostly with transgender adults hoping to update their own documents. And there was an army of attorneys volunteering their time. They sat behind fold-out tables with signs taped to them showing what they could help with: Driver’s license. Medical records. Birth certificates. Passports. Social Security.

As I stood there waiting for my turn, it struck me how often our name and gender are listed on things, and how little we think about it, until they’re listed wrong. And it’s more than just an inconvenience. In most of the United States, there are no legal protections for transgender people in the workplace, housing or schools. The wrong documents can cost you your job, or get you detained at the airport, or beat up or worse. Every person in that room knew this all too well.

I got a lawyer all to myself.  

“So I have her birth certificate amended from Washington state, and I have the court-ordered name change from King County, and a doctor’s letter.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "A drawing by a child in a University of Washington study on trans children.", "fid": "115003", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201501/marlo-mack.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Marlo Mack"}]]

Unfortunately the event was more geared toward adults, not kids. The attorney hesitated, unsure of what to do with my child’s case.

So I wound up where I always do, calling on the coolest group of moms I know.  

Marlo: So, what are we gonna do?

Marlo:  I'm more stressed about this than I thought I would be.

Rebecca: There's definitely a lot of people in freak-out mode.

Maureen: I panicked again...

Amelia: What other election have we ever had where 4-year-olds know who won?

Marlo: So have you got your kiddo's documents all changed?

Amelia: We have one left, and I wanna get it done before Jan. 20th, yes I do.

Two days before Christmas, I made plans to head downtown and get my daughter’s Social Security record changed, or at least give it my best shot.  

I gathered together every possible document I could imagine the Social Security Administration might want to see. All her records, old and new, from the courts, from the state, I even got an updated letter from her pediatrician, just to be on the safe side.

The paperwork is a hassle, but for me it’s the easy part. The hard part is how real this makes everything. If I’m being honest, I’d admit that one of the reasons I’ve put off changing her Social Security card is because I didn’t want to change it.

It’s the last official document with her old name on it, the last official piece of evidence of the son I once thought I had, and adored.

But it’s time to let that go.

I’d been told to expect a long line, but it turns out there aren’t many people in the waiting room of the Social Security Administration on the ninth floor of the Henry M Jackson Federal Building in downtown Seattle two days before Christmas.

I had a whole row of hard plastic seats to myself while I waited for my number to be called and felt more nervous than makes sense.

They called my name, I turned over my paperwork, and that was it. They told me the new card would arrive in two weeks which would before the new administration comes into office.

And then it arrived.

“Look, the mail came,” I told my daughter.  

“What’s it say?” she asked.

“You see who that’s for?” I pointed at the envelope. “Can you read it?”

“Social security,” she read.

“What’s the name on there?” I said.

She was ecstatic. “You fixed it!”

Marlo Mack is the creator of How to be a Girl, a podcast about daily life raising her transgender daughter. Produced in partnership with KUOW, it was recognized as one of the 50 best podcasts of 2016 by both The Atlanticand The Guardian.