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Even In Death Non-Binary People Are Being Robbed Of Their Identity

  • February 28, 2021

In the USA, laws are slowly changing. In 2014, reflecting on Christopher Lee’s death, the California State passed the “Respect After Death” Act. It requires gender identity, rather than gender assigned at birth, to be recorded on death certificates in the state of California. On April 16, 2018, Oregon became the first US state to introduce non binary gender “X” on death certificates, and other states have followed.

But whether there will be changes in the UK soon remains to be seen. Last year, non-gendered campaigner Elan-Cane lost a campaign against the UK Court of Appeal to include an “X” option on UK passports.

However, there is some progress. This year, for the first time, there will be options to include non binary identity on the UK census.

Dr Guyan welcomes the change.

“Asking questions that enable people to answer in ways that best represents how they exist in everyday life is not abandoning ‘robust’ or ‘tidy’ data but a true reflection of the world we live in,” he says.

LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall, which also backed the campaign for a non-gendered option on UK passports, would welcome a change to how we record gender on death certificates.

“It’s vital more options, like an ‘X’ category, are introduced, so non-binary people are recognised for who they are in life and in death,” says the charity’s communications and campaigns associate director Robbie de Santos.

Funeral professional Hayhurst is hopeful. “The thing that needs to change is there needs to be an option to put your own gender in. It’s not just male, female, non-binary – there are many. With a recent audit of the funeral sector calling for more regulation, things are definitely about to change,” he says.

Lack of recognition of non-binary identity after death starts with death certificates, but it doesn’t end there. Hayhurst feels the funeral sector should be doing more to support non-binary people and their loved ones.

“I often hear phrases like ‘I treat everyone the same’ or ‘death equalises people’,” Hayhurst says, “but most funeral directors don’t know what non-binary is. How can they claim to treat someone equally when they don’t even know what the term is?”

In June 2016, trans youth charity Gendered Intelligence partnered with the Corpse Project to talk to trans people about how trans and gender variant bodies are treated after death.

In the resulting “Transfesto”, they called for paperwork to “remove unnecessary and invasive questions about gender” and an investigation into the funeral service industry with the aim of creating a “trans friendly practice”.

They also produced a guide about what trans people can do to make sure our wishes are respected after death, as much as possible within current legislation. The guide recommends writing a will, naming an executioner and writing a letter of wishes.

Hayhurst points to some of the changes already happening. Ceremony Matters, an organisation that supports and trains funeral celebrants, last year hosted a series of super conferences on marginalised identities.

Hayhurst spoke at “Non-binary identities: understanding LGBTQ+ identities”, and was excited by the turnout. He feels there is a real desire within the funeral sector to consider how to respect queer and trans identities in ceremonies.

“It goes back to the AIDS epidemic,” he says. “Good funeral directors will make sure that queer family are held at funerals, for example when the ceremony is for someone who has only been out to some people and not others.”

Hayhurst remembers one funeral where the biological family had disowned the deceased person, but after their death were trying to “take over everything and invalidate their identity”.

The family insisted on entering the funeral first and being in the front row. When the person’s queer family came in second, the funeral director said: “And now for the important people.”

Hayhurst has also heard of funeral directors who have scribbled out “M” and “F” options on cremation forms and written in more suitable gender options. “To lie on one of these forms is an offence,” Hayhurst says, “so therefore to lie about a non binary person’s gender is technically an offence.”

He also stresses that people can change funeral directors if they’re not satisfied and that there is no legal requirement to even use a funeral director. “If there isn’t somewhere in your local area you trust to hold a funeral, then you can do it yourself,” he says, and a section of his Queer Funeral Guide outlines how. The Good Grief Trust has also began running a weekly online café for bereaved partners of LGBTQ+ people.

February is LGBTQ+ history month, but the UK is still rewriting trans people out of history and present. Hayhurst believes death certificates are the best start. “Once we start recording non binary deaths, it will become part of the status quo. Then non-binary becomes part of our language, and this filters down, changing the whole funeral sector.”

Useful websites and helplines:

  • The Gender Trust supports anyone affected by gender identity | 01527 894 838
  • Mermaids offers information, support, friendship and shared experiences for young people with gender identity issues | 0208 1234819
  • LGBT Youth Scotland is the largest youth and community-based organisation for LGBT people in Scotland. Text 07786 202 370
  • Gires provides information for trans people, their families and professionals who care for them | 01372 801554
  • Depend provides support, advice and information for anyone who knows, or is related to, a transsexual person in the UK
  • London Lesbian Gay switchboard (LLGS) is a free confidential support information helpline for LGBT communities throughout the UK | 0300 330 0630
  • Manchester Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is a free support, information and referral service for the Manchester and North-West area | 0161 235 8000
  • Stonewall for more information on other LGBT services and helplines | 08000 502020

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