California’s Respect After Death Act, or Assembly Bill 1577, passed successfully through the state’s Assembly Health Committee in early May, and was approved by the full Assembly in a bipartisan vote of 61-3 May 22, according to the Transgender Law Center. It will now move to a Senate vote in the fall.
The bill gives guidance to authorities, including coroners and funeral directors, on how to identify a deceased person’s gender on their death certificate if legal documentation and biology appear to give conflicting information.
The bill, introduced by Assembly speaker Toni Atkins and cosponsored by the Transgender Law Center and LGBT rights group Equality California, was inspired by events surrounding the death of female-to-male transgender activist and Transgender Film Festival cofounder Christopher Lee.
When Lee died in 2012 at the age of 48, the sex on his death certificate was labeled "female," despite the two decades he had lived as a man and a driver’s license that listed him as male. Funeral directors had reportedly filled out his death certificate based on anatomy, rather than on his legal or social gender, to avoid liability.
As Lee was estranged from his biological family, his closest friends, Chino and Maya Scott-Chung, were entrusted to oversee his affairs after he died, and they could not accept Lee being misgendered in his final form of legal identification simply because he wasn’t present to resist. They approached the Transgender Law Center, and the Respect After Death Act was conceived.
Being misgendered after death "sends a message, really a pretty strong signal to the rest of the community, that your wishes around your gender, your identity, your life as this person, who you are doesn’t matter and can be completely erased once you’re not here to stand up for yourself," Ilona Turner, legal director for the Transgender Law Center, told The California Report.
To remedy this, AB 1577 specifies legal documents to which California officials should defer when determining gender on a death certificate, including birth certificates, court orders approving a name or gender change, passports, proof of clinical treatment for gender transition, and valid driver’s licenses. In the event of a conflict, such documents would supersede the preferences of next-of-kin, and authorities will be shielded from any potential lawsuits that could result.