By Monica Luhar, KCET, May 22, 2014
In 2012, the passing of 48-year-old Bay Area man Christopher Lee brought to light the issue of recognizing transgender people and their desired gender identities on death certificates.
After his passing, a coroner identified Lee as a female instead of a male on his death certificate.
During his life, Lee was a filmmaker and co-founder of the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival, the world’s first transgender festival. He identified himself as a “female to male transgender man,” according to the Transgender Law Center.
Lee’s death sparked a state bill that would address the issue of respecting and identifying the correct gender for transgender people on death certificates.
The bill, California’s Respect After Death Act, recently passed in the Assembly after a 62-5 bipartisan vote. It’s currently authored by Speaker of the Assembly Toni Atkins, and sponsored by Equality California and Transgender Law Center.
“Once we are deceased, we are often at the mercy of others to treat us with dignity. The very least we can do is ensure individuals are given basic human dignity by honoring their authentic selves when they pass so that more pain is not inflicted upon grieving loved ones or the community,” said Atkins.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, gender identity within the transgender community is identified as an individual’s personal sense of “being male, female, or something else.” The Center adds, “Since gender identity is internal, one’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others.”
Jo Michael, legislative associate at Equality California, says the organization has been working with funeral director representatives, along with Atkins and other interested parties to move the bill forward in the Senate.
“The basic idea of the bill is to ensure that transgender people are respected after they pass by ensuring accurate death certificates that reflect authentic identity,” said Michael.
The bill would also provide guidance to authorities — coroners and funeral directors — when filling out death certificates. The bill also states that it would require the person completing the death certificate to record the correct gender as reflected by the individual’s desired gender identity. AB 1577 would also direct and increase the responsibility of local officials and impose a state-mandated local program, according to the assembly bill.
Sasha Buchert, a staff attorney at the Transgender Law Center, says there are consequences to not having the correct gender identified on a death certificate.
“It’s disrespectful to the memory of the deceased person can be deeply painful and stigmatizing. 1577 will ensure that transgender people will be respected after designated birth certificates,” said Buchert.
In 2003, the CDC published a “Funeral Directors’ Handbook on Death Registration and Fetal Death Reporting,” with the guidelines for filling out death certificates.
According to the handbook, a death certificate should contain the following information: Age, sex, race, education, date of death; parents; name of spouse if married; cause of death, and the final disposition.
Under the sex category, the guide vaguely states: “Enter male or female based on observation.”
“Do not abbreviate or use other symbols. If sex cannot be determined after verification with medical records, inspection of the body, or other sources, enter ‘Unknown,'” the guide goes on to state.
But some advocates like Michael believe there is little to no guidance for how to fill out death certificates.
“There’s a box for sex/race and ethnicity, and the funeral director or coroner just has to figure out what they think is the best information and fill out accordingly,” said Michael.
According to Equality California, the bill would require authorities to fill out a death certificate that reflects the person’s true gender identity through proper documentation and clearer guidelines.
The bill’s passage in the Assembly has been lauded by several LGBTQ and human rights organizations in California. John O’Connor, executive director at Equality California, hopes the bill will receive support in the Senate.
“We’re proud that a broad bipartisan majority in the Assembly voted to affirm that respect. We hope for similar support in the Senate and to deliver this bill to Gov. Brown for his signature in the fall,” said John O’Connor.
“The incredible courage our transgender brothers and sisters display in life is horribly betrayed when their gender is recorded incorrectly at death. Recognition of their authentic lives is the respect they deserve,” said O’Connor.