(Craig Miller/KQED)
(Craig Miller/KQED)

Regulations and laws have been expanding rapidly recently to give transgender people new rights. For example, transgender students can now use a school bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. Athletes can compete in the Olympics — according to their gender identity. But when a transgender person passes away, the last record of the life they lived speaks to an identity they left behind.

Christopher Lee died in Oakland in 2012. His friends took great care to explain to the coroner that Lee was a female-to-male transgender person. They pointed to his driver’s license that showed the “sex” box marked with the letter “M,” for male. But when Lee’s best friend Chino Scott Chung went to pick up Lee’s ashes, the death certificate listed Christopher as Kristina. Sex: female.

“Christopher lived his life in all ways as a man and he changed his driver’s license and passport to reflect this,” said Scott-Chung. “Listing him as female on his death certificate is disrespectful to his memory and his legacy. It is deeply painful to me, to his chosen family, and to the community that he was so much a part of.

This story inspired California Assembly Member Toni Atkins (D, San Diego) to try to change the law. She introduced a new bill to the Assembly health committee Tuesday.

“There’s no statutory or regulatory guidance on whether sex should be listed according to the deceased’s gender identity or the anatomy,” Atkins said. “The lack of guidance can create complications when friends and family disagree about the deceased’s gender.”

Under current law, family members have the final say over how sex is noted on the death certificate. The new bill would require coroners and funeral directors to record the person’s gender identify rather than sex. And when there’s a dispute, a driver’s license or other legal document trumps family opinion.

“It’s not uncommon for a transgender person to retain some physical characteristics of the gender assigned to them at birth even though they have transitioned to a new gender identity,” Atkins said.

Atkins says her bill would ensure that transgender people can be recognized in death the way they lived their lives.


April Dembosky

April Dembosky covers health care news and trends across California for KQED's statewide program The California Report. She has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, and aging and end-of-life issues. Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Third Coast International Audio Festival, the Society for Professional Journalists, and the Association of Health Care Journalists.

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