Majority Leader Toni Atkins

Today Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins introduced a bill, sponsored by Transgender Law Center and Equality California, that will help ensure transgender people have their authentic gender identity reflected on their death certificates. Assembly Bill 1577, the Respect After Death Act, will require the authority responsible for completing a transgender person’s death certificate to do so in a manner that reflects the person’s gender identity if the authority is presented with documentation of that gender identity, such as written instructions from the deceased person confirming their wishes, an updated birth certificate or driver’s license, or evidence of medical treatment for gender transition. In the absence of these documents, the gender reported by the person’s legal next of kin will be used.

Majority Leader Atkins noted, “Once we are deceased, we are often at the mercy of others to treat us with dignity. For transgender people, their gender identity may not be consistently recognized after death by family, friends, and even officials. This bill provides an objective way to make sure that a transgender person’s gender will be correctly identified after they pass on.”

Current law requires death certificates to list personal data such as name, sex, and race, and there is no legal guidance about how the official filling out the death certificate should determine a transgender person’s sex. The lack of guidance sometimes results in cases where the information on the death certificate is not consistent with the deceased’s lived gender. This can put funeral directors and coroners at risk of liability if the friends and family of the deceased believe that they listed the incorrect sex. Additionally, when a transgender person is wrongly gendered upon their passing, whether on official documents or in the media, it is not only disrespectful to the deceased person but also to fellow transgender community members, for whom witnessing that kind of mis-gendering can be tremendously painful and stigmatizing.

“Transgender people face horrific rates of discrimination and violence,” said Masen Davis, Executive Director of Transgender Law Center. “The very least we can do is ensure folks 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.”

The bill drew inspiration from the passing of Christopher Lee, a San Francisco artist and transgender advocate who was mis-gendered after his death in 2012. Lee was born female but had long identified and expressed himself as a transgender man. Unfortunately, the coroner wrongly identified Lee as female on his death certificate, despite his driver’s license that correctly showed his sex as male.

“At a time when we were mourning the loss of our dear family friend, we had to endure the pain of seeing him and his legacy be disrespected,” said Lee’s close friend Chino Scott-Chung. “We don’t want this to happen to anyone else’s family or friends.” Transgender Law Center is working with Scott-Chung and other friends of Christopher Lee to have his death certificate amended to accurately reflect his gender.

“This important legislation ensures that when California remembers transgender people who have passed, it remembers them as their authentic selves,” said John O’Connor, Equality California Executive Director. “We thank Majority Leader Aktins for her leadership in ensuring California honors its obligation to respect transgender people even after they’re gone.”

Transgender people frequently face significant barriers in getting identity documents changed to accurately reflect their gender. Last year, Majority Leader Atkins introduced AB 1121, sponsored by Transgender Law Center and Equality California, which was signed by Governor Jerry Brown in October. By removing some of the most outdated, invasive, and expensive steps from the processes, AB 1121 significantly improved access to legal name changes and identity documents that accurately reflect transgender Californians’ gender identity.