Transgender people can live for decades as their authentic selves—but still end up having their birth-assigned gender listed on their death certificates.
That’s a problem that Representative Rosanna Gabaldón is hoping to solve in Arizona.
Her bill HB 2290, as KPHO first reported, would make it easier to list the correct gender marker on the death certificate of a transgender loved one who passes away.
As HB 2290 itself states, the person who fills out the death certificate for a transgender person “shall record [their] sex to reflect [their] gender identity.”
If the next of kin tries to record the wrong gender, someone else can present a document—like proof of name change, a driver’s license, a social security card, a statement from a doctor, or a passport—to ensure the right gender is recorded.
The bill would also make it less burdensome to change a death-certificate marker after the fact. As KPHO noted, the only current way to retroactively correct a death-certificate gender marker is to supply proof of sex reassignment surgery.
The bill was introduced on Jan. 17, and has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Rep. Gabaldón told The Daily Beast that the issue first came to her attention when some of her transgender constituents approached her about it.
“They have lived a wonderful life—and they feel very strongly that they want to have dignity in death as well as life,” she said.
“This is something that’s important not only to my constituency but to the state of Arizona. I’m confident that the country’s attitudes have been changing over the years.”
Changing other identity documents in Arizona is also a challenge.
Arizona is one of 17 states that require proof of surgery for transgender people to change the gender markers on their birth certificates, according to the Movement Advancement Project. The procedure for changing drivers’ licenses is smoother—it does not require surgery—but still not as seamless as it is in two of Arizona’s neighbor states, California and Nevada.
As a result, only 11 percent of Arizona respondents to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey said they had their correct name and gender on all of their IDs. In fact, 68 percent said that none of their IDs reflected their gender identity.
That means many transgender people in Arizona will die without ever having proper ID—hence the need for posthumous corrections.
“Just like all of the other ID documents and records that we have in life, it’s important to respect and properly reflect an individual’s gender identity on all of their documents,” Arli Christian, state policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, told The Daily Beast. “Death certificates are a particular opportunity to show respect for who an individual is after they pass.”
Compared to the issue of transgender birth certificates, this is an area that has received some, but much less attention.
The focus on birth certificates is indeed warranted, especially as anti-LGBT bills aim to restrict restroom usage by birth certificate—and as the Trump administration reportedly considers defining gender by “birth certificate, as originally issued,” as a leaked memo from the Department of Health and Human Services indicated last year.
But quietly, some states have begun ensuring that transgender folks who pass away will be treated with dignity after death—at least on their official documentation.
California, as KQED reported in 2015, was the first state to pass legislation expressly allowing a transgender person’s gender identity to be listed on their birth certificate. The law was passed after a 48-year-old transgender male filmmaker named Christopher Lee was given a “female” death certificate—despite the fact that his surviving loved ones explained to the coroner that Lee was transgender and supplied a male driver’s license.
In 2017, a bill along these same lines went into effect in Washington, D.C. And New Jersey passed a similar law in 2018, allowing “the next of kin or the best qualified person available” to report the gender identity of a deceased transgender person.” [PDF]
All of these bills— including HB 2290 in Arizona—have similar provisions allowing loved ones to present the person completing the death certificate with a document like a name change that proves the deceased was transgender.
Christian, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” told The Daily Beast that these provisions are important because a transgender person’s next of kin does not always respect their gender after death.
“It is a particularly difficult and troubling issue for trans folks who pass—having to sort of be at the mercy of next of kin or family who may not support their gender transition,” they told The Daily Beast. “What a bill like [HB 2290] tries to do is ensure that if an individual has made their gender identity clear—and gone through the steps of updating their other documents—then even after they’ve passed and they’re not able to state that themselves, their gender identity is still respected.”
Christian referenced data from the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey indicating just how common family rejection is among the transgender community: 40 percent of respondents said their families were “neutral or not supportive” of their gender—and 15 percent said they had either run away from home or been kicked out of the house.
“That can cause serious repercussions after death because of who’s in charge of calling the shots after someone passes away,” said Christian.
It is sadly not uncommon for transgender people to be buried as the wrong gender, and referred to by their previous name after death. Bills like HB 2290 cannot control how funeral homes handle requests from next of kin pertaining to dress and grooming of the body—but they can help ensure that, on paper, at least, the correct gender is listed.
As more and more states reform the process for changing identity documents for living transgender people, it’s likely that more attention will be paid to this issue soon.
Transgender Canadians, as the Canadian Press reported, are currently scrutinizing the death certificate process now that every province no longer requires sex reassignment surgery to change birth-certificate gender markers. (One Canadian transgender man, Callum Tate, memorably told the Canadian Press that being misgendered on a death certificate is “the final ‘screw you.’”)
But progress may be relatively slower in the United States, where transgender rights are lagging further behind. Still, Rep. Gabaldón has hope that we’ll see the tide turn soon—and that her bill can be a part of that shift.
“I’m confident that the country’s attitudes have been changing over the years,” she told The Daily Beast, adding that some of her constituents have told her “that we’re going to see a time when we look back at this and wonder why anybody had a problem with it.”
“Let’s get to that point where we can look at each other and respect each other for who we are—and who we’ve chosen to be,” she said. “I’m hoping for that time.”