Filmmaker Christopher Lee attends a 1999 film festival. Elizabeth Sheldon/Courtesy of Elizabeth Sheldon hide caption
Filmmaker Christopher Lee attends a 1999 film festival.Elizabeth Sheldon/Courtesy of Elizabeth Sheldon
Maya Scott-Chung remembers one of the first times she met Christopher 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 rest of his adult 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.
This memorial slide show honors late filmmaker Christopher Lee, with photos provided by his friends Maya and Chino Scott-Chung and Bobby Chung.Produced by Vega DarlingYouTube
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."
Chino Scott-Chung, Maya's husband, was so close to Lee, they called each other brothers. "Christopher lived his life in all ways as a man," Chino Scott-Chung said. "Listing him as female on his death certificate is disrespectful to his memory and his legacy. It is deeply painful to me, to his chosen family, and to the community that he was so much a part of."
Maya and Chino Scott-Chung made their way to the office of California Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, from Lee's hometown of San Diego. Atkins drafted a law to 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 year. She argued it should be gender identity. 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 Lieutenant Riddic Bowers of the Alameda County Coroner's Bureau. He says a driver's license is not enough to override anatomy. "We have to rely on someone's existing birth certificate and their correlating anatomical description," he says.
I just felt like Christopher's spirit will not rest in peace with a death certificate that says female."
Family opinion is also a factor. If there's any confusion, next-of-kin is consulted. And this is the heart of the controversy. 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. "Once someone dies, who actually lives as family and who is legally recognized as family is often different," Maya Scott-Chung says.
But Bowers says his staff had 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 became law and goes into effect July 1. It changes two key things. First, it requires coroners and funeral directors to record a person's gender identity rather than anatomical sex on the death certificate. Second, if there's a dispute, a driver's license or passport will 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 Maya and Chino Scott-Chung, that meant doing more than organizing a memorial and packing up all his clothes. That meant continuing the spirit of Lee's activism and changing the law. They plan to get his death certificate changed as soon as the law takes effect.
"The legacy he leaves for us all to find is what were the spaces and places inside ourselves that were really transformed through loving him and being loved by him, and this is part of that," Maya Scott-Chung says. "We hope that everyone can honor and respect their loved ones in their death."
The Breeder Document
The birth certificate is often referred to as a “breeder document.” If an individual can successfully obtain a birth certificate, they can assume that identity as their own because birth certificates have no photograph or biometrics by which to identify the true and rightful holder of the document. The individual may now, with this breeder document, obtain additional and more secure forms of identification issued legitimately based on the birth certificate. The birth certificate is the easiest document to obtain and duplicate for of the purpose of assuming someone else’s identity; birth certificates are mainly ink on paper with a raised seal. Few other security features are incorporated into birth certificates.
Birth certificates are issued by the town, county, or state/province in which the birth occurred. They are legal, public documents and as such are accessible to others. There may be a fee, or perhaps the inquirer must provide a justification, but fees can be paid and justifications can be fabricated—if a justification is even requested by the clerk or registrar that issues the document. Because there is no picture identification or biometric identifier on a birth certificate, it is easy for an individual seeking it to contend they are, in fact, the person listed on the birth certificate. If an individual can obtain a legitimate copy of a birth certificate of someone with similar age or birth date, that is an added bonus. Birth certificates are not reconciled with death certificates—in the United States, only the Social Security Administration is concerned with that, and as a government bureaucracy it does not move quickly. Thus, it is possible to impersonate a recently deceased person because there is no link to their death certificate.
Once the birth certificate is obtained, the “breeding” can begin. The birth certificate can be used to apply for a driver’s license in a state or province. This is a rite of passage for teens in many Western countries, where it may otherwise be unusual for a minor child to have photo identification (ID) unless he or she has a passport. The driver’s license, which might have some proof-of-address or testing requirements, will further establish the identity of the individual; licenses are issued by the state/province after at least minimal vetting and driver’s licenses generally have seen improved security features in the last 10 to 15 years. With the driver’s license, the individual now has a stronger and legitimate form of identification that will allow them access to government offices, airplanes, and various other facilities. With a driver’s license, the individual now has enough identification to rent an apartment, set up utilities, rent a car, drive a car, etc. Most importantly, the driver’s license can now be used to procure additional identification.
Alternatively, the individual might apply to the Social Security Administration for a Social Security card based on the birth certificate. To be issued a social security number, the main parameter that must be met is legal presence in the United States. A birth certificate from a US municipality or county establishes that fact. As social security numbers are often issued shortly after birth, a photo ID is not required to obtain a social security card. This document is important as a corroborating piece of identification. Social security numbers are used, rightly or wrongly, as a national identification number. The social security number is used on driver license applications, rental applications, by K-12 and postsecondary schools, and employers as a unique identification number; the Internal Revenue Service uses it for tax filing purposes; and it is used for other purposes.
Thus, no matter how much security a local, state, or federal government entity incorporates into identity documents, possession of a breeder document enables access to highly secure documents, as well as making it possible to evade counterfeit and fraud-detection measures by virtue of its unquestionable authenticity. Consider how criminal elements might have become aware of the breeder document concept. The clerk at the local county clerk’s office or Department of Motor Vehicles tells people what documents they will and will not accept, and usually why. Trial and error will eventually lead to success as different documents successfully pass muster with the clerk. The internet has made this process even simpler as most government entities put instructions on their websites telling exactly which documents are acceptable.