New California law will permit death certificates to list gender identity rather than biological sex

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In July 2015, California will become the first state to ensure that transgender peoples’ death certificates are accurate regarding their gender.

Previously, their biological sex at birth was the determining factor, rather than how a person identified in life, and the gender marker could only be changed if the family of the deceased petitioned on their behalf.

Under AB 1577 (also known as the Respect After Death Act) put forward by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, transgender people will be remembered—with official documentation—the way they would like to be. The bill originally passed the California Assembly in May 2014.

There are many reasons it is important for a transgender person to have autonomy over their documentation, including that final certificate. In many instances, transgender people are estranged from their family because of their transition, and families don’t always see eye-to-eye on what sex should be put on a death certificate.

To prevent confusion, the text of AB 1577 states that California officials may defer to any of a number of legal documents to determine gender, “including, but not limited to, a birth certificate, a driver’s license, a court order approving a name or gender change, a social security card, a passport, an advanced health care directive, or proof of clinical treatment for gender transition.”

The legal director for the Transgender Law Center, Ilona Turner, told the California Report that being misgendered even on a death certificate “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.”

In an op-ed piece for the Advocate, Speaker Atkins writes of some truly heartbreaking stories she heard about transgender people being listed in death as a different gender than the one they lived as.

“While the law is just now taking effect, we’ve already seen results. Last December, Ki’Tay Davidson, a transgender and disability rights activist, passed away in his sleep. The Los Angeles Coroner’s office had heard about the Respect After Death Act, and took steps to recognize Ki’Tay as male on his official documents,” she says. 

In essence, a death certificate matching a person’s gender identity honors the person’s transition. Thus, she writes, “I believe it is a sign of progress—and promise—that AB 1577 passed the California Assembly with both Democratic and Republican votes.”

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