Bill to help clarify gender identity on death certificates

Media Credit: Photo Courtesy of Office of Mary Cheh
Ward 3 Council member and GW Law School professor Mary Cheh introduced a bill in the D.C. Council that would allow residents to declare their own gender pronouns on their death certificates.

GW Law School professor and D.C. Council member Mary Cheh introduced a bill last month that would allow death certificates to reflect the gender with which a deceased resident identified.

The Death Certificate Gender Identity Recognition Amendment Act of 2015 would change an existing D.C. act “to clarify the process for respecting a decedent’s gender identity on his or her death certificate,” according to the bill. Cheh said the amendment will show that the city respects people who identify with a gender other than their assigned sex, a point student leaders said they support.

“This bill establishes a clear process for respecting a person’s gender identity on his or her death certificate and enables the District to assure members of the transgender community that their gender identity will always be respected,” Cheh said in an email.

The bill could also protect people whose family members may disagree with their gender identity by putting the matter into the person’s own hands before they die. Cheh said that as the system is currently set up, people can only trust the individual completing the death certificate to accurately depict their gender identity.

“This bill creates a hierarchy of sources to consult to correctly determine a person’s gender identity and provides an avenue for resolving disputes when individuals close to the decedent disagree about their gender identity,” Cheh said.

The bill, which was co-sponsored by Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans who represents Foggy Bottom, requires documentation that could include written instructions from the deceased person and a court order approving a name change or gender change for the certificate to show another gender. Evans did not return a request for comment.

If there is no documentation, the information can be provided by individuals “most familiar with the decedent’s gender identity at the time of death,” according to the bill.

Rob Todaro, the president of Allied in Pride, said in an email that the bill would “speak up for people who no longer have a voice” and allow a person to express their gender identity even in death. He said the people who would be most affected by the bill would be people who died violently as a result of having their gender identity not accepted.

At least 21 transgender people have been murdered in the United States this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. A lack of support of a transgender person’s identity has led to an increase in transgender suicides recently, including Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender female from Ohio who died by suicide and ignited more support for the transgender rights movement.

“Too often trans people, especially victims of murder and suicide, are misgendered by official documents or by their guardians who did not support their gender identity,” Todaro said. “We need to speak up for people who no longer have a voice.”

Todaro said he is proud of Cheh, who teaches constitutional law at GW. He said he would like to meet her and have her involved with Allied in Pride events.

“We are lucky to have many faculty members who are so engaged in progressive politics and committed to improving the wellbeing of the D.C. community,” Todaro said.

Michela Masson, a co-president of GW’s Feminist Student Union, called the bill a “huge win” for people who do not identify with their assigned gender, and said she is “delighted” that the bill does not require gender reassignment surgery for a person to have a different gender on their death certificate.

“The most exciting thing for me about this bill is the decedent’s ability to give an advance directive about what they would like their gender listed as on their death certificate, since that puts the power in the individual’s hands,” Masson said.

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