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Transgender Americans Have Been Registering Their Transitions With Social Security Since 1936

Very few surveys ask people if they're transgender. One economist managed to mine American government data for clues to the transgender American experience over the last seven decades.
(Photo: paintings/Shutterstock)

(Photo: paintings/Shutterstock)

Transgender rights may seem like the hot new issue in America today, but transgender people have been around—and have been making contact with the government—for at least the past few generations. That's according to a fascinating analysis published last week by the United States Census Bureau.

For the analysis, Census Bureau economist Benjamin Cerf Harris looked through Social Security Administration data dating back to the administration's inception in 1936. Harris sought records of people who had changed their first names from something that's strongly associated (at least 90 percent of the time) with one gender, to something that's strongly associated with another gender. He found that, since 1936, more than 135,000 Americans have putatively transitioned genders and registered a new name with Social Security as part of their transition. At least a few folks make this change in every year of Harris' data.

Here are some more highlights from the analysis:

  • Most people who registered a gendered name change with the Social Security Administration were in their mid-30s when they did so.
  • Most of the putatively transgender Americans Harris found in his data set had changed their listed name only, but 21,833 changed the sex they had recorded with the Social Security Administration too. For many years, that was no small modification to make. Between 2002 and 2013, the administration required that people provide a doctor's note saying they'd undergone genital sexual re-assignment surgery before changing their recorded sex.
  • Most often, people registered both their name and sex change with the Social Security Administration at the same time. More than a quarter changed their name first, however, followed by their sex, six or seven years later. That suggests many of these folks made a thorough effort to transition socially, including a name change with the government, long before they transitioned medically. (Remember, it used to be that the Social Security Administration required transgender people to provide evidence of surgery before changing their gender with the administration. That's no longer true.)
  • Harris' study found a higher proportion of black or Hispanic transgender Americans than prior research has shown. That highlights one strength of Social Security data: It captures many Americans of color, whereas whites are often over-represented in science studies. Scientists usually have an easier time recruiting well-educated, white volunteers for their studies, but the records in the SSA database are more representative of the American population as a whole.
  • Policy matters. People in the Social Security database who appear to have transitioned genders are more likely to live in states with laws protecting gender expression than in states with no such laws.

Of course, it can be difficult to know for sure whether any one person in the Social Security Administration data is truly transgender. What if one is a cis-gender lady, tired of being named George? Plus, earlier records may be especially error-prone, as Pacific Standard's Ryan Jacobs discovered when he tried to find records of a man named Penis. But Harris took several steps in his analysis to try reducing the likelihood of wrongly identifying non-transgender individuals as transgender. For example, he looked only for sex changes that were registered after the person turned 16, to reduce the odds of including people in his analysis who simply had the wrong sex recorded for them when they were born.

His methods made it likely he under-estimated the number of transgender Americans—not to speak of Americans who transition genders without registering any changes with Social Security—but they make it likely that the patterns he found are truly reflective of the tendencies of transgender folks in the U.S.

Transgender Americans may have been around for a long time, but they're still severely under-studied, so it's great to see such a large data set mined for insights into the transgender experience in the U.S. Plus, there's plenty of scope for more, Harris writes: Future researchers could use government data to uncover transgender Americans' incomes, employment, marriage and divorce rates, and access to health care, to check for any disparities in comparison with the rest of America.