- Tragic cases reveal how trans lives and identities can be erased at the very end.
You may feel your life has just begun when you come out, but if you are a trans person there are good reasons to also plan for your death.
Of course, few of us actually do plan for our death nowadays. Barring an accident or dread illness we are used to living our three score and ten in blithe complacency about the ending of it. Or at least we were until recently.
Of course, AIDS cast its own ghastly shadow over the gay, bi and trans community in particular. It is still with us. However, fortunately, for most people HIV is now a survivable, long-term health condition and in no way the ‘automatic death sentence’ it once was.
Then came coronavirus. And it has reminded people they shouldn’t be complacent about their death.
Every group will respond in its own way to this new reality. But one constant issue is that facing trans individuals: the fear of being misgendered, ‘de-gendered’ even, in death.
It doesn’t happen every day. But it does happen, and when it does it is devastating for friends of the deceased.
Their names were Jennifer and Leelah
Remember Jennifer Gable? She was a 32-year-old trans woman from Idaho, US, who died suddenly in October 2014.
Jennifer had been fully transitioned for years, and all her friends knew her by that name. However, her father had other ideas.
He instructed the funeral parlour to cut her hair short and dress her up in a suit. Then in all accompanying notices, he referred to her by her dead name and as ‘he’.
Equally distressing for those who knew her was the fate of Leelah Alcorn who also died in 2014.
Leelah was a trans girl who took her own life after her parents forced her into what many consider to be conversion therapy.
But, the ultimate indignity came after her death. Her parents appear to have insisted on misgendering her in death and excluding her best friend from her funeral.
Over the past few weeks, many trans individuals have told me they are very concerned about something similar happening to them.
So what can you do about it? Below is a short guide to ways to reduce the risk of being abused in death:
Decide: How do you want to be remembered?
First things first, decide how you wish to be remembered.
In many cases, that will be clear. If you have been long-term transitioned, then barring some sudden change of heart you will want to be remembered in your transitioned gender.
However, that is not always the case.
Perhaps you are in the very early stages of transition. You may be starting to cross-dress as part of real life experience, but not yet taking hormones or subject to any surgery.
Perhaps you are non-binary.
Or maybe you are trans but not out. In that case, you may feel the same about your death as you do about your life – that you are not ready yet for your friends and family to know.
You may not want to shock or upset family members. And you may not want your death to be the first occasion they learn about your gender may affect your decision.
Whatever the circumstance, it makes sense for you to spend some time, whether a moment’s thought or a day’s worth, deciding how you want to be remembered.
Inform: Express what you want
Next, set out clearly how you wish people to remember you.
In some cases that may be as simple as stating your gender openly: ‘I am a man’; ‘I am a woman’.
If you are non-binary, official documents will not record you as such in death. But you can at least set down how you wish to be remembered, what pronouns people should use and how undertakers should dress you for your last farewell.
If you are only coming out to some family members posthumously, you must consider what to communicate to them – and how. Will a letter suffice? Would it carry more weight, and be more direct if your last message is recorded, in visual or voice form?
Because this is a thing you could not bring yourself to tell people in life, and you had a reason for that. You suspected, rightly or wrongly, that this was too difficult for them to hear. In which case, how much harder for them to hear this after you have passed away?
Perhaps all the more reason to try to have that conversation while you still can.
Alongside that, consider your funeral. It’s a good idea for anyone to plan their funeral and consider how to pay for it, whatever their sexuality or gender identity.
But if you are trans, will people remember you in the way you want at your funeral? This could be particularly problematic if you want a faith-based service. At the very least, you can set out what you want and consider who may provide it.
Act: Make sure your wishes are respected
Most important of all, you need to make sure what you wish happens.
The law on what happens after death varies between countries.
For example, in the UK your death is registered by an ‘informant’ who is usually a family member but may be a coroner.
The Home Office says the registrar will record the information the informant gives them. And the registrar does not need to enquire if you have a legal gender recognition certificate.
But once your death is recorded, it is much harder to get your gender amended.
That makes it very important to carry on your body at all times some form of gender identification. This could be a drivers’ license for instance. Otherwise, you could carry a card or letter directing medical personnel to contact a doctor or solicitor who will explain your situation.
It may sound melodramatic, but in these uncertain times you may need to get used to carrying some documentation clearly labelled ‘in case of death’. Because while some funeral parlours are getting better at dealing with trans folk, that is not true for all.
Those involved in preparing your body for the last rites – especially embalmers – will need even more information.
For example you may want to give instructions on special clothing or accessories, such as a wig or a binder, that you use to express your gender. You may need to explain where they can find these items if they are not easily accessible.
Support: A friend can help fulfill your wishes
Of course, it also makes sense to tell a close friend about your wishes. They can hand over any last communications. And they may need to explain them to those who need to know: family, friends, work colleagues.
Alternatively, your friend may help delete your past, should that be your choice.
The question of who gets to curate your digital history after you are gone is a whole other subject.
However, if, ultimately, your decision is to remain in the closet even after death, then it may be that you need to entrust your PC, phone, social passwords and browsing history to someone other than a close family member.
Ultimate sanction: Who will actually decide?
Last but by no means least: who actually ‘owns’ your death?
None of the above has any effect if the person legally responsible for your departure from this world decides, for whatever reason – from grief, from incomprehension, from sheer spite – to over-rule your wishes.
In law, that person will almost always be your next of kin – generally a close relative or spouse.
That alone is a good reason for going ahead with divorce from a hostile ex. It is also a good reason for inserting specific wishes into a will. You may be able to make the bequests in your will conditional on people respecting your wishes.
However, do not rely too heavily on your will. Because you may well be long buried or cremated by the time people actually read it.
Next of kin: Who is it?
Again, the law on next of kin varies widely.
In the USA, the ‘next of kin’ is defined clearly. The law sets out a strict order of precedence. Your next of kin is first your husband or wife, then your children, then your parents.
Without a valid will saying otherwise, they make decisions about your property and even what happens to your body.
Certainly it is possible to vary that order of precedence. However, state law varies how easy it is to do so.
By contrast, the UK does not give a precise legal definition of next of kin.
The good news is that the NHS now makes available a downloadable Next of Kin Card. You can use it to detail who you would like them to contact in an emergency or if you die in hospital. You then just have to carry it at all times.
The NHS will explain to the next of kin about your care or if you die about donating your organs and tissue. So make sure you keep their contact details up to date. They will also be the one(s) who make your funeral arrangements.
In addition, if you are worried about decisions that may be made on your behalf at times of critical care – or after you have passed on – you can nominate a specific individual as your next of kin, via a legal document known as a Lasting Power of Attorney.
Be careful, though. There is rarely such a thing as ‘UK law’. Scotland is often very different from England and Wales; and Northern Ireland can differ again. So check, always.
Seek advice: Ask a lawyer if you are concerned
Likewise, you should never assume that because you understand how this works in one country, it works the same way elsewhere.
If you have any concerns, always speak to a lawyer with relevant expertise. And let us hope that it will be a long time before any of this advice becomes necessary.