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Aimee Stephens: Waged landmark legal fight for transgender employees

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Michigan's Aimee Stephens became a superhero for the transgender community when she fought her 2013 firing and won.

But the legal fight took seven years, and she didn't live to read the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that delivered her victory, a ruling that federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on gender identity. 

Stephens of Redford Township died May 12 due to complications from kidney disease — five weeks before the decision was handed down. She would have turned 60 on Dec. 7. 

"She did this not just for herself but for everyone’s rights," said her widow, Donna. 

In this Oct. 8, 2019, file photo Aimee Stephens, seated, and her wife Donna Stephens, in pink, listen during a news conference outside the Supreme Court in Washington.

Stephens was fired from her job as an embalmer and funeral home director at R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Garden City in 2013 after informing her boss, Thomas Rost, that she was transitioning from male to female and planned to start wearing appropriate women's business attire to work. 

At that time, Stephens had been living as a transgender woman outside of work but had decided to come out to her colleagues. 

On behalf of Stephens, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2014 sued Harris Homes, which operates three funeral homes in southeast Michigan. 

Rost argued that Stephens’ dress would become a distraction for grieving families. His lawyer said the funeral home was within its rights to insist that Stephens adhere to its dress code for male employees during work hours. 

The justices disagreed, ruling that the firing constituted sex discrimination under what's know as Title VII of federal civil rights law.

“An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the June decision.

Stephens' was the first civil rights case involving a transgender person to be heard and decided by the Supreme Court, said her attorney, Jay Kaplan of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. 

"The significance of this case means that folks now have a remedy. Transgender people who've been discriminated against in their jobs now have a legal remedy, they can go into court to be able to challenge that sort of thing," Kaplan said. 

The court's ruling is important because there currently is no federal civil rights law that explicitly mentions gender identity to cover transgender people, Kaplan said. And Michigan is one of 29 states without explicit legal protections for sexual orientation or gender identity.

"It's a historic, landmark decision," Kaplan said. "Certainly, for the transgender community, by Aimee standing up for herself and challenging what happened to her, it's gonna help transgender people who experienced discrimination in their lives."

Donna Stephens poses with a photo of her wife Aimee Stephens. Aimee Stephens posthumously won her case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in June that federal law protects gay and transgendered workers from bias.

Stephens has received several posthumous awards this year, including one from Affirmations, an LGBT community center in Ferndale, and another from the Gay and Lesbian Health Association, Kaplan said. 

"After this decision, I thought now everyone is going to forget about her because of the election and COVID and this, that and the other," Donna Stephens said.

"But getting the awards, it's like, no, she’s not forgotten," she added. "I just wish she were here to be able to accept them on her own."

Aimee Stephens 

Lived: Dec. 7, 1960, to May 12, 2020

Occupation: Funeral director

Education: Certificate of license for the gospel ministry (1981); associate's degree, Fayetteville Technical Community College (1988); attended Mars Hill University; North Carolina mortuary science license (1988); Michigan mortuary science license (2008)

Family: Widow Donna Stephens and stepdaughter Elizabeth Curbey

Why honored: Aimee waged a legal battle for seven years to fight her firing by her employer. Hers was the first civil rights case involving a transgender person to be heard and decided by the Supreme Court, which ruled that civil rights law bars job discrimination against transgender people