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When investigating deaths, the Los Angeles County coroner will start collecting the gender identity and sexual orientation data, along with tracking suicide rates, violent deaths and hate crimes against LGBTQ people.
The Los Angeles County coroner’s office will begin tracking the sexual orientation and gender identity of deceased residents, a move that elected officials hope will help inform policy proposals geared toward LGBTQ populations.
The coroner’s office will also track LGBTQ suicide rates and violent deaths, as well as hate crimes against them. The change, approved unanimously by the county Board of Supervisors in September, seeks to track disparities in mortality rates, with the ultimate goal of improving proactive and protective policies for marginalized populations, said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who co-authored the motion with Supervisor Kathryn Barger.
“There is a connection between the information that we get on people who have passed away and how it relates to prevention and safety measures, and help, and health,” she said. “This information will help us know whether the population of LGBTQ persons, especially young persons, are overrepresented in the numbers of people who take their own lives. If so, I think that helps us understand more about their lives and how we may need to do more in our services to help protect them—for example, by helping them get counseling early on if they are considering suicide.”
The data suggest that LGBTQ people disproportionately contemplate suicide, particularly younger people. In 2018, 39 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered ending their own lives, according to a survey conducted by the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention nonprofit. More than half of transgender and non-binary youth seriously considered suicide in that same timeframe, while 14 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual and 29 percent of transgender and non-binary youth had actually attempted suicide.
Other sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have reported similar risks among LGBTQ populations. But because death records do not contain information on sexual orientation or gender identity, there is no data about rates of actual suicides within that community.
“There are young people going through this anguish and feeling that there’s just never going to be anything good in their lives, so they’re going to give up. The data on attempted suicides and ideation really backs that up,” Kuehl said. “That caused us to think, ‘This would be a very good community to gather these facts about.’ We were surprised to find that no one really did it. It’s just not a thing that people really think about.”
The county’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, and his staff will collect that information in the course of investigating causes of death, Kuehl said. That may include interviewing friends or family members as well as piecing together information from the deceased person’s life, their surroundings when they died, and autopsy results (whether, for example, there was physical evidence of hormone therapy, a key step toward gender transition for many transgender individuals).
“There are many times when a medical examiner is called to the scene. They arrive and generally take in a lot of information from the families and from the scene itself,” Kuehl said. “They’re in a fairly good place to gather the kind of information that could lead them to indicating that this person is a member of the LGBTQ community.”
The board of supervisors requested quarterly updates from the coroner’s office but acknowledged that the process of data collection likely won’t be a perfect science. Some family members may not be aware that their loved one was gay or bisexual, or may not have been supportive of his or her decision to transition, and so some members of the LGBTQ community may still go unaccounted for. But any data would be helpful, Kuehl said.
“We wanted to have them report on this, to be more alert and gather the information that they could. Because right now there’s nothing,” she said. “Simply getting this information out more broadly will help us do our job better for the living.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.