Indignities continue after death for transgender people, who have no guarantee that the coroner will mark their gender correctly on their death certificates. When transgender activist Christopher Lee took his life in 2012, the Alameda County medical examiner glanced at his body and made a casual gender assessment, labeling him “female” and gouging an even deeper hole into the hearts of his friends and loved ones.
Now, with the help of Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, transgender activists are hoping to introduce some clarity on how to fill out death certificates for transgender people, in order to help others avoid similar situations.
Why should marking gender on a death certificate be so hard? Surely you can just look at someone, right? Actually, it’s not that simple. Transgender people may die at varying stages of transition (it’s worth noting that the suicide rate is especially high in the trans community, especially among youths), or may decide not to pursue bottom or top surgery.
Consequently, someone might have external genitals and be a woman, or vice versa. Coroners may make an assumption based on external appearance instead of hormone levels, expressed gender identity, legal identifications, or statements from friends and family.
For Christopher Lee, that meant being labeled as a woman after death, despite the fact that he was on testosterone and identified as a man. It was just one more insult in a life of misgendering and transphobic attitudes, and he’s not the only transgender person who’s been labeled with the wrong gender after death. Despite the fact that his government IDs reflected his gender correctly and people who knew him could testify to the fact that he was a man, the coroner went with basic physical findings.
That’s because California, like other states, lacks a clear protocol on how to handle the deaths of transgender people. Coroners aren’t given any guidance on recording their gender after death, and proceed using the information that’s right in front of them, even if it conflicts with the reality of the decedent’s life. Under Assemblywoman Atkins’ bill, however, coroners would record a gender identity consistent with that expressed by the deceased, with legal documentation like a driver’s license or passport acting as sufficient documentation to prove it.
In addition, the bill streamlines the name change process for trans Californians, who currently have to go through the courts to change their names and amend legal documents like birth certificates. Getting a court order is expensive, and also exposes the petitioner to the risk of outing, thanks to the fact that courts require people to publish information about the proposed change in a newspaper of record. The bill creates a much safer and more private system for updating government documents, and creates an easy way to keep these documents consistent with a person’s gender identity.
This marks a key change from California’s somewhat haphazard system, which in addition to being expensive can also be somewhat discriminatory. Until 2012, trans people who wanted to change their sex markers on government documents had to provide documentation of gender confirmation surgery, for example, which meant that people who couldn’t afford or didn’t want surgery had to endure the humiliation and danger of having the wrong gender marked on documents like drivers’ licenses and passports.
If successful, this bill will make bureaucracy just a little bit safer for trans Californians — even after death.
Photo credit: Daniel X. O'Neil.