Making The Law Respect Gender Identity After Death : Code Switch After filmmaker Christopher Lee died, his death certificate listed him as "female." His friends helped to change the way California law handles the death certificates of transgender people.

Making The Law Respect Gender Identity After Death

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's true that transgender people have made big strides recently in building public awareness about their experience, but legal recognition is still in the very early stages. California has made one big change on how the law treats transgender people after death. From member station KQED, April Dembosky reports.

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APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: Christopher Lee made several documentaries about transgender culture, including one about his own life. In "Christopher's Chronicles," he explains that he was born female - Kristina. The film opens with Lee looking in the bathroom mirror, rubbing shaving cream on his chin.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CHRISTOPER'S CHRONICLES")

CHRISTOPHER LEE: When I was a little kid, I used to have this plastic razor. I used to pretend like I was shaving every morning just like my dad.

DEMBOSKY: In his mid-20s, he asked his friends to call him Christopher and to refer to him as he instead if she. Lee lived the rest of his adult life as a man. In 2012, when he was 48, he committed suicide. His friends were left grieving, not just his death, but what happened after. They explained to the coroner that Lee was transgender. They turned over his driver's license with his sex indicated with a capital M. But when the death certificate came back, Christopher was listed as Kristina. Sex - female.

MAYA SCOTT-CHUNG: It felt like spitting on his grave.

DEMBOSKY: That Christopher's close friend, Maya Scott-Chung.

SCOTT-CHUNG: I just felt like Christopher's spirit will not rest in peace with a death certificate that says female.

DEMBOSKY: Scott-Chung made her way to the office of California legislator Toni Atkins. Atkins drafted a law saying death certificates for transgender people should be filled out according to the person's gender identity rather than anatomy. At a hearing in Sacramento, she explained that only a fraction of transgender people ever have sex reassignment surgery.

TONI ATKINS: 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.

DEMBOSKY: That can leave coroners in a quandary. Christopher Lee was taking testosterone when he died. The medical examiner described the body at the autopsy - a short mustache and beard, a receding hairline consistent with male balding, and female genitalia. That's why the F ended up on the death certificate.

RIDDIC BOWERS: We don't have a lot of leeway in that.

DEMBOSKY: That's Lieutenant Riddic Bowers of the Alameda County Coroner's Bureau. He says a driver's license is not enough to override anatomy.

BOWERS: We have to rely on someone's existing birth certificate and their correlating anatomical description.

DEMBOSKY: If there's any confusion, next of kin is consulted. And this is the heart of the controversy. Many transgender people are estranged from relatives who are uncomfortable with their gender transition. Lt. Bowers says his staff isn't allowed to take the word of close friends or chosen family.

BOWERS: If they're not blood related, they're not family. Legally, they just have no say.

DEMBOSKY: The new law in California changes two key things. First, it requires coroners and funeral directors to record a person's gender identity rather than anatomical sex on the death certificate. Second, if there's a dispute, a driver's license or passport will trump family opinion. Christopher Lee's father and sister declined to be interviewed for this story. In the end, they asked Lee's friends to settle his affairs. For Maya Scott-Chung, that meant doing more than clearing out his closets. That meant continuing the spirit of Lee's activism and changing the law.

SCOTT-CHUNG: We really - we hope that everyone can honor and respect their loved ones in their death.

DEMBOSKY: She plans to get Lee's death certificate changed as soon as the law takes effect in July. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in San Francisco.

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