The Gender Struggle: Won in Life, Lost in Death
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Colorado coroner candidate Dana Hutcheson fights against misgendering in death, a new battleground for transgender rights.
By Lauren Young
In February, Celine Walker was shot and killed in a hotel room in Jacksonville, Florida. Though the 36-year-old identified as a woman, the local sheriff’s office — and thus the news media — misgendered her as male. Activists cried foul, and the sheriff didn’t budge. But nearly 2,000 miles away, Dana Hutcheson took notice. “Well, if I’m coroner, I would never let that happen,” Hutcheson said as his campaign was getting underway. And now a sleepy coroner’s race in Jefferson County, Colorado, has become the latest frontier in the struggle against erasing trans lives in death.
At 34, Hutcheson is three decades younger than his opponents on either side of the aisle. He has never run for office before, and the Democrat has eschewed campaign slogans and logos. (Given the nature of the job, “it would be tacky,” he explains.) Many of the voters he’s trying to woo do not even know the coroner is an elected position, and a partisan one to boot. Sitting at crucial intersections between community relations, public health and law enforcement, coroners — the oldest elected office in the United States, with roots in medieval England — play a critical role in death investigations.
That role is more crucial than ever as trans and nonbinary people fight for their identities to be accurately recognized. “The number of barriers that transgender people face in life and after life to having gender identity respected are huge,” says Arli Christian, state policy director at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). Nationwide, those barriers are part of what Hutcheson notes is “a serious problem of coroners, medical examiners and forensic pathologists not recognizing gender fluidity and gender identity.”
Misgendering can also mask the increased risk of suicide and the heightened levels of violence faced by trans people, particularly trans women of color like Walker.
Legally, accurately reflecting a person’s gender on a death certificate is “a little tricky,” Christian explains, and that’s part of what underpins NCTE’s work in ensuring transgender and nonbinary people can receive accurate gender markers on everyday forms of identification. California and Illinois are currently the only states, in addition to the District of Columbia, with laws in place to safeguard against misgendering someone on their death certificate. Legislation is also awaiting the governor’s signature in New Jersey, and Rhode Island lawmakers are considering a bill along the same lines.
Without legislation, noting the gender of a trans or nonbinary person on a death certificate can fall to the discretion of a coroner’s office or a medical examiner who may — not always intentionally — misgender a person according to genitalia, secondary sex characteristics or identification that is contrary to how people expressed their identity when alive. Misgendering can also mask the increased risk of suicide and the heightened levels of violence faced by trans people, particularly trans women of color like Walker.
It’s “really an ultimate indignity for people who have already faced, in some cases, deadly violence,” says Sarah McBride, national press secretary for Human Rights Campaign. But when state law does not step in, there are no guidelines for how coroners — who might receive conflicting information from a next of kin hostile to a family member’s transition — should determine and declare a decedent’s gender.
After hearing about Walker’s case in Florida, Hutcheson “immediately latched onto the issue as something that needs to be changed,” he explains from the Lakewood, Colorado, home he shares with his four cats. He’s just returned after his day job at the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Control Center, where he tracks the opioid epidemic. As part of a larger plan to enhance data available from the coroner’s office, such as whether a homicide victim was married, Hutcheson also plans to keep track of decedents’ transgender status. Hutcheson has pledged that the coroner’s office on his watch will ensure people’s gender identity on their death certificates reflects their gender expression while alive, including gender nonbinary decedents.
“That’s a part of his platform that’s really compelling,” says Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, a national organization that recruits and trains young progressives to run for local office. This year, Hutcheson became the first coroner candidate to earn Run for Something’s endorsement. “It’s a really progressive approach to an office we don’t tend to think of as having those kinds of positions,” Litman says.
Family Research Council, a conservative policy organization, has called the LGBT rights movement “an assault on the sexes” and argues that a person’s sex is immutable throughout life. A spokesman for the Jacksonville sheriff’s office told Mic about the Walker case: “A lot of people are upset that we haven’t identified her as a female when she wasn’t a female.”
Throughout American history, the coroner’s office often has been hostile ground for social justice issues; for example, sweeping lynchings under the rug. Lax professional requirements — often no medical degree or law enforcement training is required — coupled with widespread underfunding lead critics to question whether the office is necessary. In a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, experts found widespread defects in the nation’s coroner system and advocated phasing out the role altogether.
But about 1,300 counties across the country still elect coroners who have say over death investigations, and LGBTQ advocates see the role as one that can be an instrument for change. “Coroners can be a critical voice in pushing forward inclusive hate crime [legislation] at the state level” and reporting hate crimes to the federal government, McBride says.
Leading up to the June 26 primary, Hutcheson is hitting the campaign trail, typically with two events per night after work. He’s campaigned side by side with Brianna Titone, who serves on the leadership of Jefferson County’s LGBTQ+ Caucus and is seeking to become Colorado’s first openly transgender state representative. “Dana really believes … that he can do better [and] more people need to step up and take that role on when injustice is happening,” Titone says. It’s a movement that will be hard to erase.
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