DC Bill to Study Trans Deaths Faces Opposition from LGBTQ Advocates

D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In a little-noticed development, District of Columbia Councilmember Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) introduced a bill in September 2023 calling for creating a special committee within the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to determine and study trends related to the cause of death of transgender and “gender diverse” people in the District of Columbia.

The bill is called the Transgender and Gender Diverse Mortality and Fatality Review Committee Establishment Act. Among other things, it mandates that the medical examiner’s office through the newly created committee “identify and characterize the scope and nature of transgender and gender-diverse mortalities and fatalities, to describe  and record any trends, data, or patterns that are observed surrounding transgender and gender-diverse mortalities and fatalities.” 

In a development that some observers say caught Pinto off guard, officials with two prominent D.C. LGBTQ supportive organizations – the Whitman Walker Institute and the LGBTQ youth advocacy group SMYAL – expressed strong opposition to the bill in testimony submitted in April as a follow-up to a Council hearing on the bill conducted by Pinto on March 21.

Among other things, the officials – Benjamin Brooks, Whitman-Walker Institute’s Associate Director of Policy and Education; and Erin Whelan, SMYAL’s executive director, said the committee to be created by the bill to identify trans people who die would be an invasion of their and their families’ privacy. The two said the funds needed to pay for identifying whether someone who dies is transgender should be used instead for other endeavors, including supporting trans people in need, and protecting their rights.

The hearing record for the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which Pinto chairs and which conducted the hearing, shows that Brooks and Whelan were among four witnesses that testified against the bill. Six witnesses, including officials with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Medical Society of the District of Columbia, testified in support of the bill.

Also testifying in support of the bill with suggested revisions was Vincent Slatt, who serves as chair of the D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commission Rainbow Caucus.

Jenna Beebe-Aryee, Supervisory Fatality Review Program Manager for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, testified that the bill would be “remarkably challenging” for that office and its partnering city agencies to carry out, including what she said would be a difficult process of identifying whether someone who has died is transgender or gender diverse. But she did not state that her office and the Office of the Mayor outright oppose the bill.

The bill has remained in Pinto’s committee since the time of the hearing, with no indication from Pinto of what her plans are for going forward with the bill, including whether she plans to make revisions and if or when she may plan to bring the bill to the full Council for a vote. 

Victoria Casarrubias, Pinto’s communications director, told the Blade last week that Pinto’s office had no immediate comment on Pinto’s plans for the bill.

The 17-page bill, according to its introductory summary page, would also “create a strategic framework for improving transgender and gender-diverse health outcomes for racial and ethnic minorities in the District,” and to “recommend training to improve the identification, investigation, and prevention of transgender and gender-diverse fatalities, and to make publicly available an annual report of its findings, recommendations, and steps taken to evaluate implementation of past recommendations.”

The bill authorizes the D.C. mayor to appoint the members of the newly created medical examiner’s committee and requires that members include representatives of six D.C. government agencies, including the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner; the departments of Health; Behavioral Health; Health Care Finance; Human Services; and the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs.

It calls on the Office of LGBTQ Affairs to provide support to other city agencies in developing procedures for identifying transgender people who the agencies have provided services for and who have died.

It also requires the mayor to name as committee members representatives of organizations providing health care and services for the transgender community as well as a social worker specializing in transgender related issues and a college or university representative “conducting research in transgender and gender-diverse mortality trends or fatality prevention.”  

Seven other members of the 13-member D.C. Council signed on as co-introducers of the bill. They include Council members Robert White (D-At-Large), Anita Bonds (D-At-Large), Christina Henderson (I-At Large), Matthew Frumin (D-Ward 3), Janese Lewis George (D-Ward 4),  Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), and Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7).

Spokespersons for Gray and Bonds told the Blade the two Council members continue to support the bill and would consider any revisions that those who have expressed concern about the bill might suggest.

“The establishment of this committee will continue the District’s leading role in LGBTQIA+ advocacy and legislation,” Pinto states in a letter accompanying her introduction of the bill. “The Committee will be the first entity of its kind in the United States,” according to her letter.

 Pinto cites in her letter studies and national data showing that deaths of trans people are disproportionately higher due to a variety of causes, including illness compared to cisgender people in the United States. “Trans women in particular are disproportionately vulnerable to the aforementioned risks, as well as to violence and murder, with one in four trans women likely to be victimized by a hate-related crime,” Pinto said in her letter.

 “Although data are limited, some studies suggest that transgender people are ‘twice as likely to die as cisgender people’ due to ‘heart disease, lung cancer, HIV-related illness and suicide,’ with trans women being ‘two times as likely to die compared to cis men and ‘three times as likely’ compared to cis women,” Pinto states in her letter.

In their testimony against the bill, Brooks of Whitman Walker and Whalen of SMYAL said the problems they believe the bill will bring about outweigh the benefits that Pinto says it will provide for the trans community.

“It is improper for the District government to be investigating and determining someone’s gender identity,” Brooks said in his testimony. “This would require District agencies to coordinate investigations into deeply personal characteristics of many people,” he said. “This invasion of privacy is a poor use of the government’s time and energy.” 

Brooks stated that the city has existing policies and requirements designed to find ways to improve the lives of transgender and gender diverse residents. He pointed to the LGBTQ Health Data Collection Amendment Act of 2018, which requires the Department of Health to produce a comprehensive report on the health and health disparities faced by the D.C. LGBTQ community. According to Brooks, the Department of Health has not released such a report since 2017.

“We strongly recommend that rather than proposing to spend precious time and scarce resources on a novel and invasive committee, the District should put those resources towards fulfilling existing data collection and reporting obligations,” Brooks states in his testimony. 

Whelan of SMYAL expressed similar concerns in her testimony. “Transgender and Gender-Diverse (TGD) people do not need yet another violation of their privacy and exposure to more questions and interrogation for them to provide the reasons for the incredible amount of violence and loss the transgender and gender-diverse community faces,” Whelen says in her testimony. 

“What we do need are solutions on how to address the underlying causes of anti-transgender violence, in addition to the barriers that prevent transgender and gender-diverse communities from accessing and maintaining safe and stable housing, and accessing affirming mental health resources,” Whelan adds in her testimony. “What we as a community need is diligent action in a positive direction to actually address the lack of resources, services, and violence towards this community.”

Supporters of the bill might point out that it includes strongly worded language calling for keeping personal information about transgender and gender-diverse people who die confidential and calls for criminal penalties for anyone who violates the confidentiality provision by disclosing the information, including whether a deceased person identified as transgender.

Brooks said strong grounds exist for not enacting the bill despite its privacy provision.

 “The collection of sensitive information, particularly for decedents who cannot advocate for their own right to privacy, always raises the potential for inappropriate disclosure regardless of potential penalties,” he said. “The threat of criminal prosecution can be a deterrent to the intentional inappropriate sharing of private information; however, it may not stop accidental or inadvertent disclosure,” he said.

Slatt’s testimony calls for six specific suggested revisions in the bill pertaining to ways the newly created medical examiner committee would obtain information about trans people who die, including the suggestion that the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs become involved in identifying trans people who pass away and be given one or more additional staff members to help support its increased responsibilities under the legislation.

 “Members of the ANC Rainbow Caucus have discussed this proposed bill and find that it is a remarkable and historic step towards addressing trans and gender-diverse mortalities and fatalities,” Slatt says in his testimony. 

“At a time when trans and gender-diverse people are under attack by municipalities across the nation, the District of Columbia is setting an example on how to create not just a culture of inclusion, but also a culture of belonging for trans residents,” he stated.

Washington Blade courtesy of the National LGBTQ Media Association.


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