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The widespread consequences of misrepresenting gender in death

Close-up of hand holding tea candle in a pink glass holder. In the background, a blurred background of a person in a dark suit.
Roberto Roldan
Community members remembered Zachee Imanitwitaho at a candlelight vigil in her honor on Feb. 9, 2023.

Experts say erasing people’s true identities in public processes, like death records and the United States Census, can harm survivors.

Earlier this month, a Black, transgender woman was shot and killed near where she worked, the JBS meat processing plant in Butchertown. A day after her death, the Jefferson County Coroner's Office and, subsequently, some news outlets, misgendered Zachee Imanitwitaho.

Imanitwitaho was born and raised in a Rawandan refugee camp. She and her parents, who are of Congolese descent, recently resettled in America.

“This was supposed to be a time for her to be able to start her life here,” Becky Burnside with the Catholic Charities of Louisville told LPM News at a recent vigil honoring Imanitwitaho.

Burnside aids in refugee resettlement and helps people who are new to the U.S. with employment. That’s how she and Imanitwitaho met.

“What I will always remember is her big smile, her excitement to be here in the U.S. and start her life, find a job to support herself and her family,” Burnside said. “We wanted her to have every opportunity to shine and be herself and to have that cut short is devastating.”

Burnside said Imanitwitaho loved fashion, spending time with her friends — and that she was “a real light that will be missed.”

Police spokespeople said they arrested a 58-year-old man after he went to the city jail and turned himself in. There are no publicly available court records to show the status of his case. It is unknown what motivated the killing.

Misgendered, under-counted and a heavy mental toll

Chris Hartman, executive director of the Kentucky Fairness Campaign, said erasing people’s true identities and selves in public records and processes is harmful. For one, he said, it takes away the ability to accurately represent the scope of discrimination and physical harm trans and gender non-conforming people face.

“There is no more vulnerable individual than a Black trans woman for physical violence and murder. We see it repeatedly,” Hartman said. “We need to know these statistics so that we can best know how to protect our community.”

Media Matters for America is a national nonprofit aimed at stopping the spread of disinformation. A 2020 report from the organization showed major national news outlets and police misgendered most trans murder victims that year.

“We saw the Louisville Metro Police Department correctly identify the gender of Zachee,” Hartman said.

The coroner’s office sent out an initial report identifying Imanitwitaho the day she died and accurately reflecting her gender. However, after performing an autopsy, the coroner sent out a “correction,” misgendering Imanitwitaho by sharing her sex assigned at birth.

Representatives for the Jefferson County Coroner's Office did not respond to requests for comment.

“The coroner maintained an open line of communication with me while we were discussing the death of Zachee. And I do think that they are striving to do both what they feel is right, and what they feel they are restricted by within the confines of the law,” Hartman said.

Currently, Kentucky law allows some trans people to apply for amended birth certificates and other legal documents to accurately reflect their gender. However, making that change requires proof of medical, physical transition. Hartman said the state’s requirements are limiting and inaccessible to most.

“The idea of updating a birth certificate in Kentucky for someone who is trans is out of reach for the vast majority of transgender folks, for so many different reasons,” Hartman said. “Mental and physical gender affirming health care services are incredibly expensive, and are not covered by most insurance plans.”

Even for people who have the financial means, Hartman said there are other barriers, like a shortage of medical providers who offer gender affirming services. And some people simply don’t know they have the option to update their legal records in Kentucky. The law also leaves out non-binary and other gender-nonconforming people.

Misgendering trans and gender-nonconforming people after they die takes a toll on living members of the LGBTQ community. Hartman said witnessing this time and time again carries significant mental health repercussions.

“When they see someone being misgendered in death, they can foresee the future — that this is something that could very easily happen to any member of the trans community,” Hartman said. “To see that being deprived of members of our community when they pass away, has got to add to the mental health burdens that our trans community faces already disproportionately.”

Another public process that overlooks gender identity and sexual orientation is the U.S. Census survey. The 2020 Census collected information including names and dates of birth, sex, age and race. Hartman said the limited questions can deter people from filling the survey or force them to misgender themselves in the process.

“It causes serious harm to our community, not being able to document our numbers, not being able to know what our trends are,” Hartman said. “For health, finding out if our community is living in poverty, is unemployed — all of these are important factors for preserving health and helping our community thrive.”

He said the undercount carries implications on processes like lawmaking, budgeting and getting the federal funds necessary to support programs like Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS.

“Kentucky and so many other states really are losing out, because we're not documenting an entire population,” Hartman said. “[On] things that will make our community healthier, safer, feel more included, and more supported”

Anti-LGBTQ efforts in the Kentucky legislature

There are several anti-LGBTQ measures advancing through Kentucky’s General Assembly. They target young trans people’s ability to get gender affirming care and prohibit students from using facilities like locker rooms and restrooms that align with their gender identities. Another bill would eradicate the current, limited options for updating a birth certificate to match one’s gender identity and prohibit doctors from using “X” or any other symbol to identify youth as nonbinary on birth certificates.

“The effect of all these bills…it’s not just discrimination and marginalization and ostracization of these kids. But the increased depression, self harm and suicidality that we know, comes hand in hand with measures that marginalize our trans kids,” Hartman said.

He said some of the anti-LGBTQ proposals would result in medical complications and undue mental burdens as well.

“When [trans youth] aren't able to successfully access puberty regulators or hormone replacement therapy, these kids are going to have irreversible changes to their body,” Hartman said. “That’s going to lead to a lifetime of distress of depression…and costly procedures to attempt to correct what the state legislature has taken away.”

Steps toward change

In the past, Louisville Metro has conducted training with its employees on LGBTQ issues, Hartman said, through the Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission and the Fairness Campaign. He said continuing that could help public officials better respond to and document incidents involving trans and people who are outside of the gender binary.

Hartman said, since coroners must operate within the strict confines of Kentucky law, there may be opportunities to take action at the local level to allow for accurate representation of people’s genders after death.

“I suppose perhaps an ordinance could solve a part of the challenge of misgendering trans victims in death,” Hartman said.

He added that continued advocacy and ensuring people know about and can access the resources available to them is paramount.

Roberto Roldan contributed reporting to this story.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

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