By Parker Marie Molloy
Originally published on Advocate.com April 07 2014 9:23 AM ET
Last week, the Social Security Administration issued updated guidelines regarding the eligibility of transgender individuals for survivor’s benefits. This new policy comes in the wake of a case involving 92-year-old transgender World War II veteran Robina Asti, who, in spite of being legally married to her husband Norwood, was denied spousal benefits after his death.
Under the previous policy, all cases involving transgender individuals’ marriage-based claims were put through an extra level of scrutiny and were sent to the SSA’s regional chief counsel for review. Now transgender people will no longer be subject to that increased level of review, and will be processed the same as claims from cisgender (nontrans) individuals.
In Asti’s case, despite being legally recognized as female for more than three decades, the SSA determined that she was “legally male” at the time of her marriage to Norwood Patton in 2004, disqualifying her from receiving survivor benefits following his death in 2012. In February, the SSA quietly reversed that decision after public pressure and efforts of Lambda Legal, and began sending Asti the checks owed to her.
The core position expressed in the SSA’s new standard is that gender transition does not affect the legal validity of a marriage. Whether one was married prior to gender transition or after, the SSA will no longer make transgender individuals endure a heightened review process.
There are still seven states where the SSA will conduct additional legal review: Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. This is due to a belief by the SSA that state marriage laws regarding transgender individuals are unclear, making the existing case-by-case review process necessary.
“Transgender marriages are no longer treated as suspect in the eyes of the SSA,” Lambda Legal Transgender Rights Project director Dru Levasseur said in a written statement. “The content and tone of the new guidance shows that the SSA has taken a big step forward in cultural competency about the transgender community. This important federal agency is providing greater dignity and demonstrating greater respect for transgender people. Today’s announcement removes many hurdles that transgender people had to overcome when they filed claims for spousal benefits. We hope no one has to ever again endure the disrespect that Ms. Asti experienced.”
The new guidelines can be read in full at the SSA website.