Transgender Activist’s Death Introduces New Political Opponent: Funeral Homes

By Jamilah King Apr 21, 2014

Filmmaker and activist Christopher Lee tragically committed suicide in 2012. That, in itself, is news. Among many other things, Lee was a co-founder of San Francisco’s Transgender Film Festival. But after a lifelong struggle to assert his right to his own gender identity, Lee’s death shed some light on just how long that battle can drag on. 

Scott-Chung and her husband made their way to the office of California Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, from Lee’s hometown of San Diego. Atkins recently introduced a bill that would establish protocols for filling out death certificates for transgender people.

"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 at a hearing in Sacramento last month.

She explained that only a fraction of transgender people have sex reassignment surgery. It’s very expensive, and most insurance plans won’t cover it. Some people just don’t want it.

"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.

That can leave coroners in a quandary. Christopher Lee was taking testosterone when he died. The Alameda County 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.

"We don’t have a lot of leeway in that," says Lt. Riddic Bowers of the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau. He says a driver’s license is not enough to override anatomy. An updated birth certificate would work, but that requires a court order. And until 2012 getting a court order meant getting surgery.

The bill that Atkins has introduced would require coroners and funeral directors to record a person’s gender identity instead of their anatomical sex and, if there’s a dispute, allow a driver’s license of passport to be sufficient legal documentation to prove someone’s gender identity.

Here more about the bill. And you can listen to Lee’s story below:

(h/t The California Report)