Feature writing

LGBTQ issues

Aimee Stephens, who made trans history at the Supreme Court, dies before landmark LGBTQ ruling

The Daily Beast

May 12, 2020

Aimee Stephens, who has died aged 59, was waiting for SCOTUS to rule whether it was OK to fire her—and others—because they were LGBTQ. The fight, she told Tim Teeman, would go on.

All Aimee Stephens wanted to do was the job that she loved.

“We’re human beings,” Stephens told this reporter just before her landmark LGBTQ case was heard at the Supreme Court last October. “We deserve the same basic human rights as everyone else has. That’s all we’re asking for. We are not asking for anything special. We just want the basic human rights that we should already have anyway.”

Stephens, whose case alleging she was fired for being transgender went all the way to the Supreme Court, died on Tuesday in Detroit, aged 59. Hers was the first case about the civil rights of transgender people to be heard by the Court.

Stephens, a former funeral director, died before the Court had issued its ruling about whether it is legal to fire someone on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The next date for a possible decision to be issued is Thursday, May 14.

Stephens’ is one of three cases before the court, brought on behalf a trio of LGBTQ people—Stephens, the family of Donald Zarda (also deceased), and Gerald Bostock—who claim they were fired because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Their lawyers argue that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on sex, also applies to discrimination against LGBTQ people.

Stephens had been receiving end-of-life hospice care at home in Michigan. Her beloved wife, Donna, was at her side when she died.

About five years ago, Stephens developed kidney disease that required frequent dialysis. A GoFundMe, launched to support Donna and Stephens’ other loved ones and to cover the costs of her care and eventual funeral, stated: “Her health continued to deteriorate and she is now in stage four renal failure. She has discontinued dialysis…Sadly it appears that Aimee will never see the result of her valiant and difficult fight for transgender rights.”

In a statement, Donna Stephens said, “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your kindness, generosity, and keeping my best friend and soulmate in your thoughts and prayers. Aimee is an inspiration. She has given so many hope for the future of equality for LGBTQ people in our country, and she has rewritten history. The outpouring of love and support is our strength and inspiration now.”

Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice and a member of Aimee Stephens’ legal team with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, said, “Aimee did not set out to be a hero and a trailblazer, but she is one, and our country owes her a debt of gratitude for her commitment to justice for all people and her dedication to our transgender community.

“When Aimee decided to fight back after she was fired for being transgender, she just wanted it to be acknowledged that what happened to her was wrong. Being a part of Aimee’s team at the Supreme Court has been one of the proudest moments of my life because of the amazing person behind the case.

“As a member of her legal team, I am deeply sad for this loss. As a transgender person and an advocate, I am filled with both grief and rage that we have lost an elder far too soon. As we, and millions, carry her work for justice forward, may she rest in power and continue to guide us on this path.

“Those who met Aimee know that her power is in her humbleness and sincerity. She has been an inspiration to millions around the world. We mourn with Aimee’s wife Donna, their daughter Elizabeth, and the millions who have been inspired by her.”

“Aimee Stephens will be remembered as a trailblazer. All of us in the LGBTQ community owe her immense gratitude for her bravery in standing up for the right of LGBTQ people to live as ourselves at work and in every aspect of our lives,” said HRC President Alphonso David. “After being fired by her employer when she told them she was transgender, she was determined to fight back and took her case all the way to the Supreme Court…

“Aimee will always be a hero to transgender and non-binary people and to the entire LGBTQ community. We share our deepest condolences with all of her friends and family, and especially her wife, Donna Stephens.”

Jay Kaplan, Stephens’ friend and staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project, told The Daily Beast that a video, with messages from Stephens’ supporters (including well-known advocates like Laverne Cox), will be released imminently. It had, it is thought, been played for Stephens before she died.

Kaplan said that Stephens had “expressed a number of times” that she hoped to live to hear the Supreme Court’s decision, but had “a lot of health complications,” and had recently suffered a couple of falls. Kaplan had last spoken to her two weeks ago, to discuss her work for LGBTQ elder advocacy group, SAGE Metro Detroit, whose board Stephens had recently joined. “She was very much looking forward to work for transgender older people,” said Kaplan.

Stephens told Kaplan that staff from the hospice were about to visit the house. “She was emotional about it understandably.” Kaplan recalled.

Kaplan said that whatever the Court’s decision was, Stephens was determined that the fight for transgender equality, and LGBTQ equality generally, continue. “She read all the legal briefs, and thought the cases had been presented well. Her opinion has always been, ‘Put up a fair fight. If the Supreme Court doesn’t get it, we will fight on,’ and make sure that other trans people don’t have to go through what she did, and be fired for who they are.”

Prior to SCOTUS hearing the three cases on October 8 last year, Stephens described what had happened to her in a powerful interview with The Daily Beast. After contemplating suicide in November 2012, she had informed her boss, via letter, that she was planning to transition, no longer willing to lead “two different lives, one for work and one for home.”

For the previous six years, Stephens had worked as a funeral director for R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Michigan. Stephens claimed she was fired after she told her boss in the letter that she was transgender, and would henceforth be dressing according to the firm’s female dress code.

In the letter, as she told this reporter, she laid out “where I was at in my life and what was going on and where I needed to be. It said I would come back from vacation in my true self, dressed appropriately in women’s attire according to what that was at the funeral home.”

Her boss looked at the letter, “and said, ‘This is not going to work,’ and handed me a letter of dismissal along with a severance package,” Stephens said. If she accepted those terms, she felt she would have “signed away all the rights I had to see him in court.”

Stephens came home, talked to Donna, and both decided to reject the severance package. Then they got in touch with the ACLU.

Getting fired from the funeral home “bothered me a lot,” said Stephens, “because I had been doing my job and doing it well, and I didn’t understand why what was happening had any effect on my job performance. Basically, they fired me because I was transgender.”

In a lower court, Stephens discovered her employer had used the reasoning that she didn’t adhere to the dress code.

“I was perfectly willing to adhere to the women’s dress code. His problem was he didn’t see me as a woman. He saw me as a man and therefore if I did not wear a coat and tie I wasn’t adhering to his dress code. He never got to see me as a woman.”

In March 2018, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Stephens—whose case is being supported by the ACLU and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC)—was unlawfully fired and that federal sex discrimination laws protect transgender people. The funeral home is challenging that ruling at the Supreme Court.

“Unfavorable treatment of a gay or lesbian employee as such is not the consequence of that individual’s sex,” the Justice Department has argued, “but instead of an employer’s policy concerning a different trait—sexual orientation—that Title VII does not protect.”


“We’ve known each other basically all our lives”

Aimee Stephens was born and raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and moved to Michigan 21 years ago. She told me that she thought her sisters realized “something was different” with her. Her biological father died when Stephens was one year old, the man her mother remarried was “the only dad I’ve ever known.” She took on his surname as her own.

From a young age, Stephens said she knew she was “different,” but didn’t know how—this was many years before the internet or when trans issues were discussed. “I was brought up down South. It certainly wasn’t something we talked about every day,” she told me.

Finally, through the internet Stephens realized she wasn’t alone, but wasn’t sure “what to do about it.” She started to see a supportive therapist in 2008, Stephens began to “get clues about what I needed to do.”

Donna, Stephens said, has been “right by my side. We’ve known each other basically all our lives. We were best friends growing up.”

Both had been married previously before marrying each other 20 years ago. “We’ve been together ever since,” said Stephens. “We didn’t foresee any reason to grow apart (after her transition). You don’t just walk away and leave your best friend. It took her a little while to accept everything that was happening as it would anybody, but there was no talk of us getting divorced or me moving out. We worked through it and here we are.”

Stephens’ mother died in 2003, long before her transition in 2012. “I wrote my dad a personal letter, and put pictures in it. When he had read it, he told my sister that I made a better-looking woman than I ever did a man.” He died in 2019.

Stephens’ sisters were very supportive, she told The Daily Beast. They spoke two or three times a week. The rest of her family had been mostly supportive, she added, except for one aunt “who told me I didn’t exist any more” when Stephens began her transition. “Since then, she’s come around. In fact I saw her earlier this year (2019) down South, and she came up to me, hugged my neck and told me, ‘I still love you, I still care about you.’”

Stephens got her first job in a funeral home in the early ’80s when still at college in North Carolina. The work bothered her at first. She couldn’t sleep after helping prepare the first body she ever embalmed. “But I told myself, ‘Look, you gotta work here if you want to stay in school. Learn to live with it, or else.’” Her career in funeral homes began.

Before her health problems, after her funeral home job ended, Stephens worked as an autopsy diener, cutting and removing organs for pathologists to look at. It was a natural flip side of the funeral directing work she had done, preparing dead bodies for families and loved ones to view.

After her kidneys failed, Stephens had not been able to work. She was “wiped out” after her three-times-a-week treatments, but told me last year she would have loved to return to work (the ideal job would have occupied her for the other four days in a week, she said). If she could have worked again, she would have taught funeral home-related skills at mortuary school, she said.


“If I had to do it all over again I would”

When this reporter spoke to Stephens last September, she told me she was “hanging in there.” She had a terrible cough, and was resting after one of her regular dialysis treatments, her kidneys having failed in 2014. “I’ve had a few good days in the last week, so all in all I’m OK,” said Stephens. “It’s very draining. I come home exhausted and take a nap, after each treatment. I guess I will be on dialysis as long as I live.”

Kaplan recalled leaving the Supreme Court, after the presentation of arguments on October 8. “The most amazing thing for her—and it had been a few days of incredible things and experiences—was leaving that building, and having thousands of people cheering for her and showing their support,” Kaplan told The Daily Beast. “It touched her so much. I asked her what the highlight of the last few days had been, and that had most moved her.”

Stephens had also been moved, said Kaplan, by the many well-wishers, who had written to her or made videos for her, thanking her for the stand she was taking.

“Through the whole process, Aimee felt this was not only her story, but the story of so many other transgender people. Her job in this case, in her view, was to benefit the entire community. To hear support from so many people was very meaningful and moving for her. She was a shy person, but really blossomed as a spokesperson.”

The day before the Supreme Court hearing, Kaplan recalled Stephens giving 10 back-to-back interviews, before feeling too sick to carry on. “She summoned whatever strength and energy she had, because that was the commitment and energy she felt towards this case. She knew what wasn’t right. She knew what wasn’t fair. Her firing was a wrong that needed to be righted. She did her job well, and she was proud of how she did it. It was part of her identity. It was part of her mission to make the grieving process easier for families. The SCOTUS case was another mission—to right a wrong, and make things better for the transgender community. That’s quite a legacy.”

Stephens was a “very spiritual person,” said Kaplan. “She knows about religion and has seen a lot of death too. I think she has a healthy outlook on this, it is not necessarily a fear for her. One time we were discussing it, she mentioned the issue of being able to pay for her funeral. I think she knew this was always a possibility. From my interactions with her, I found her a very calm person, a person who knew who she was and what she was about. Since coming out and living her authentic life 24/7, there was a sense of confidence about her too.”

Stephens told me she hoped the Supreme Court justices would look at the history of favorable lower court rulings, uphold those rulings, and “once and for all say there are protections for LGBTQ people. I hope they recognize the protections are there, and that being transgender is not new. We’ve always been here. It is just now there’s enough of us to come forth, and that it’s open for discussion.”

“If I had to do it all over again I would,” Stephens told me last September. “And to other transgender people on the verge of coming out, wondering what to and how to do it, I would say—more than anything else—you have got to be true to yourself. If you can’t be true to yourself you’re not only not going to be true to yourself, you’re not going to be true to anybody or anything else. It’s not easy, it never will be, but it’s something that’s worth it in the end.”