Filmmaker and activist Christopher Lee fought to bring light to the struggles of transgender people throughout his life. Now, his untimely death is sparking proposed legislation in Sacramento. We find out how Lee's death has opened a new political battle over the accuracy of transgender people's death certificates.
Maya Scott-Chung remembers one of the first times she met Lee. He was strutting down a red carpet at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Lee was emceeing the Transgender Film Festival, an event he co-founded in 1997.
He commanded the audience in a shimmery black faux fur coat and sunglasses.
“Christopher was fab-u-lous with a capital F-A-B,” Scott-Chung says. “He always had beautifully shined boots and just an incredible look about him.”
Lee made several films about transgender culture, including one about his own life.
In “Christopher’s Chronicles,” he explains that he was born female, Kristina. Then in his mid-20s, he started asking his friends to call him Christopher and to refer to him as “he” instead of “she.” The film opens with Lee looking in the bathroom mirror rubbing shaving cream on his chin.
“When I was a little kid, I used to have this plastic razor. It was a straight razor. I used to pretend I was shaving every morning, just like my dad,” he says, rinsing his hands in the sink. “I guess this should have been my first idea that I felt a little different than your normal little girl.”
Lee lived the last two decades of his life as a man. He committed suicide in 2012 when he was 48. His friends were left grieving not just his death, but what happened after his death.
They had explained to the coroner that Lee was transgender. They turned over his driver’s license with his sex indicated with a capital “M.” But when the death certificate came back, Christopher was listed as Kristina. Sex: female.
“It felt like spitting on his grave,” Scott-Chung says. “When they put RIP on people’s tombstones it’s rest in peace. And I just felt like Christopher’s spirit will not rest in peace with a death certificate that says female.”
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.
“Barring that, we have to rely on the documentation that exists, someone’s existing birth certificate and their correlating anatomical description,” Bowers says.
Family opinion is also a factor, and, under current law, next-of-kin has the final word. This is controversial. Many transgender people are estranged from relatives who are uncomfortable with their gender transition.
Lee wasn't in close contact with his family. Maya Scott-Chung says she and her husband were Lee’s chosen family.
“It’s important to see once someone dies who actually lives as family and who is legally recognized as family is often different,” Scott-Chung says.
But Lt. Bowers has to follow the letter of the law.
“If they’re not blood related, then they’re not family,” he says. “Legally, they just have no say.”
Atkins bill would change two key things. First, it would require coroners and funeral directors to record a person’s gender identify rather than anatomical sex. Second, if there’s a dispute, a driver’s license or passport would be sufficient legal documentation to trump family opinion.
Lee's father and sister declined to be interviewed for this story. In the end, they asked Lee's friends to settle the rest of his affairs.
For Scott-Chung, that involves more than organizing a memorial and packing up all his clothes.
“I wore his cowboy boots for a year after he died just trying to come to terms with his death,” she says.
For her, that involves changing the law. She says she plans on wearing the boots every time she goes to Sacramento to help get this bill passed, and so other transgender people can be honored in death the way she wishes Lee would have been honored.
The California Report’s intern Matt Levin contributed research for this story.