Update June 22, 2015:
In July, California will become the first state in the country to allow transgender individuals to have their gender identity listed on their death certificate.
Christopher Lee is the Bay Area man who inspired the law. Forty-eight when he died in Oakland in 2012, his friends took great care to explain to the coroner that Lee was transgender -- born female, but living his entire adult life as a man. They submitted his driver’s license, which indicated Lee’s sex with a capital M.
But when the death certificate came back, Christopher was listed as Kristina. Sex: female.
“It felt like spitting on his grave,” said Lee’s close friend, Maya Scott-Chung. “When they put RIP on people’s tombstones, it’s rest in peace. And I just felt like Christopher’s spirit will not rest in peace with a death certificate that says female."
Scott-Chung went to then-Assemblymember Toni Atkins, from Lee’s hometown of San Diego. Atkins drafted a law stating death certificates for transgender people should be filled out according to their gender identity, rather than their anatomy.
“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,” said Atkins.
The new law also clarifies that if there’s a dispute -- if relatives want the person’s birth sex recorded, for example -- a driver’s license will trump family opinion.
“The legacy he leaves for us all to find, what were the spaces and places inside ourselves that were really transformed through loving him and being loved by him, (this) is part of that. You know … we hope that everyone can honor and respect their loved ones in their death.”
She plans to have Lee’s death certificate changed as soon as the law takes effect next month.
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.