first person authority


I read an article back in the 80’s about the death of a female impersonator. She died in a plane crash, and as her estranged mother was the next of kin, the mother got control of the decedent’s body. The mother instructed the mortuary to remove her child’s breast implants, cut her child’s long hair to a short mannish style, and dress her child in a man’s style suit. I was offended then, and remain offended now. While funerary rites are often said to be more for the living than for the deceased, it remains that acts like those mentioned above can also function to erase or invalidate the true person who died.

Flash forward to earlier this year, 2010. I am now a Forensic Pathologist (a physician trained in determining the cause of death, think of the doctor doing an autopsy in a movie or on TV). I work in southern California, and a few months ago a case came to the office where I work that reminded me of the aforementioned article. A woman died in her home. Her name reflected her preferred name (over her birth name) on both her driver’s license and her Social Security card. Her sex was indicated as female on her driver’s license. Because she retained male genitalia, when she arrived at the office she was classified as “Male”. Some people have fake ID’s, so this initial classification was understandable if not completely agreeable to me. I asked the administrative arm of my office as to the guidelines for recording gender/sex on a Death Certificate. I was informed that there really are not any hard and fast rules, and that it is the discretion of the office how to record such data.

I would like to digress for a moment. In the United States, most jurisdictions fall into either a Medical Examiner system (an appointed physician, usually trained in forensic pathology) or a Coroner system (an elected official, often affiliated with law enforcement, most commonly a Sheriff’s office). Let that sink in. The people who determine gender/sex on a Death Certificate are most commonly either a physician (who may have no training/understanding of gender variance) or a sheriff (who also may have no training/understanding of gender variance).

So while this death gave me an opportunity to educate some of the investigators and administrators in my office on the topic of gender variance, it did not establish any hard and fast rules. When a transsexual/transgender/gender-variant individual dies, someone may label their remains’ gender/sex as they see fit. An individual’s identity can be erased by bureaucracy. While the dead may or may not be past caring, their friends and family are not. That someone who has had to fight society to establish the validity of their identity can have that identity erased so callously is offensive to me.

Transsexuals/transgenders/gender-variants have had much conflict with both the medical and law enforcement communities. These are the communities empowered to classify gender/sex in death. Death certificates are public records, so newspapers and others will continue to look upon the “Sex” as labeled  on the death certificate as authoritative.

Until something changes, the Trans community will continued to be treated in death as poorly as it is often treated in life.

Sean E. Enloe. M.D.

2 Responses to first person authority

  1. Anastasia says:

    The thing I find most troubling is not necessarily that one can have their identity erased so callously, but so easily. That it can be done so easily and arbitrarily is disturbing, like so many things in our society. Determining whether or not it was done callously would be dependent upon the intention behind it and would/could be subjective. The worst thing in — can have that identity erased — is the can part.


  2. You responded to a my post today about the 11th anniversary of the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 off the California Coast killing all 88 on board. I had read of a news account from a Seattle local paper which referred to two of the victims as ” a man dressed as a woman traveling with his daughter”. This addresses the lack of privacy, dignity or respect that apparently expires with the victim in the name of revealing some hidden truth.

    It is unfortunate that hostile or estranged relatives end up with the estate or even the body of the victim, where the victims can be violated, subjected to mayhem and regendered to suit their transphobic agenda. It would seem that someone got to the media and was able to squelch the report and blocked release of the names and severed links to the names list. But a later news report from another city far away named all the victims using the “father’s” name.

    I had thought about doing an essay or posting a series about mystery deaths of this nature which I would call “Habeas Corpus” – a CSI kind of analysis in which one or another group with a vested interest could claim a body “as next of kin” and the reader could decide who to reward custody.

    For instance in the Alaska 261 case, other than a “real” relative, next of kin
    Who should be allowed to claim the body?

    a) crossdressers
    b) drag queens
    c) transgender women
    d) transsexual women
    e) gay men
    f) former crossdressers
    g) genderqueer or third gender MTFs
    h) other

    There is no one right answer and there may be more than one.
    But battle lines are being drawn.

    Or the case of Brandon Ray (Teena Brandon):
    Subject of the movie “Boys Don’t Cry” for which Hilary Swank won an Oscar for portraying Brandon, Raped and later murdered with 2 others in 1993
    And who would claim this body?

    a) lesbians
    b) drag kings
    c) transgender men
    d) transsexual men
    e) genderqueer or third gender FTMs
    f) other

    Or the tragic story of Mike Penner, L.A. Times sports reporter who transitioned to become Christine Daniels, staying with the Times and becoming a trans celebrity and role model– but ended up facing a sad heartbreaking rejection from Mike’s wife and their marriage fell apart and in less than a year Christine detransitioned and went back to being Mike and returned to his job… and then committed suicide…

    Separate funerals were held for those who knew Mike and Christine and mostly the attendees went to only one of them. And who would claim this body?

    a) heterosexual men and women
    b) crossdressers
    c) transgender women
    d) transsexual women
    e) other

    I don’t pretend that we are more fit to make this judgment compared to anyone else. I wanted to believe in Christine the woman and Brandon the man, and I believe that if Christine had not lost her wife, or Brandon had not faced such horrific hate and violence that they both would have become who they were meant to be.

    Liked by 1 person

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