'I chose to stand up': Mich. transgender woman takes firing fight to High Court

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Aimee Stephens worked on the letter for six or eight months, writing and rewriting to capture exactly how she felt before showing it to colleagues at the Garden City funeral home where she was an undertaker. 

"What I must tell you is very difficult for me and is taking all the courage I can muster," Stephens wrote. 

Aimee Stephens, 58, a former funeral home director, was fired from her job in 2013 after telling her boss that she was transitioning from male to female and would begin following the funeral home’s dress code for women. Her lawsuit  alleging workplace discrimination will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in early October.

"I have felt imprisoned in a body that does not match my mind, and this has caused great despair and loneliness. With the support of my loving wife, I have decided to become the person that my mind already is."

Until that point in July 2013, her boss and co-workers had known Stephens as Anthony, who donned a suit and tie each day at R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes.

But outside work, Stephens had been living as a transgender woman for years. She had decided she could no longer go on living as two separate people. 

The letter explained that after a two-week vacation, Stephens would return to work as "my true self, Aimee Australia Stephens, in appropriate business attire."

Thomas Rost, owner of R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Garden City, Michigan, is at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case involving allegations of transgender discrimination by a former employee.

She sat with her boss, Thomas Rost, as he read the letter, which he then folded up and put in his pocket, she said. Two weeks later, he fired Stephens.

"He said, 'This is not going to work,'" Stephens recalled last week in an interview. 

Later asked about the reason for the firing, Rost said in a deposition he'd done so because Stephens was "no longer going to represent himself as a man" and "wanted to dress as a woman." Violating the dress code is a fireable offense, his attorneys say. 

Stephens was fired on a Friday. She phoned the American Civil Liberties Union first thing the following Monday. 

"The more I thought about it, the more I realized I'm not the only one who this is happening to," she said. "Someone has to stand up. I chose to stand up." 

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home in Garden City discriminated against director Aimee Stephens by firing her in 2013.

'Sex discrimination' at issue

With Stephens in the courtroom, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear her case Oct. 8 in what will be a major test for transgender rights. 

At issue is whether Title 7 of federal civil rights law, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on sex, applies to discrimination against transgender people. Michigan is among 29 states without discrimination protections for transgender individuals.

Attorneys for Rost, who declined an interview through a spokeswoman, said the case comes down to the public meaning of "sex discrimination" when Title 7 was enacted in 1964 and, therefore, a person's self-identified gender identity is not a protected class. 

"In 1964, everyone understood sex to be biology and not this internal sense of gender," said John Bursch, the former Michigan solicitor general who represents Harris Homes.

Rost and Harris Homes would have responded to a female employee who insisted on dressing as a man while working with grieving families the same way it handled Stephens, so it was not favoring one sex over another, Bursch said. 

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit last year ruled against Harris Homes, saying discrimination on the basis of transgender status is "necessarily" discrimination on the basis of sex.

"It is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee's status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee's sex," the unanimous three-judge panel wrote.

The appeals court also said Title 7 prohibits discrimination against transgender people based on sex stereotyping under the 1989 Supreme Court ruling in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins:

"An employer cannot discriminate on the basis of transgender status without imposing its stereotypical notions of how sexual organs and gender identity ought to align." 

Stephens' lawyers said a ruling for the funeral home could potentially upend case law that has prohibited firing anyone — including straight people — for not adhering to sex-based stereotypes. 

"Not only could that result in the lack of protections for LGBT people, but female or male workers who are being discriminated against in the workplace based on gender stereotyping," said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan's LGBT Project. 

Aimee Stephens, whose case against her former Michigan employer was granted by Supreme Court today.

Transgender journey

Now 58, Stephens' path to the Supreme Court can be traced to her youth.

She said she began to realize she was "different" from other kids by age 5 or so. But growing up in a conservative Baptist family in Fayetteville, North Carolina, "it's certainly not something that was talked about," she said.  

"It was shoved in the closet, and you didn't mention it again," said Stephens, who speaks with a Southern drawl.

"It was not until much later in life that the Internet came about, that I got the chance to explore a little, and said, hey, there's other people out there that kind of feel like I do."

She married and divorced and married again after reconnecting with a childhood friend, Donna. She moved to Michigan to be with her 20 years ago, settling in Metro Detroit. 

About 10 years ago, tension between the couple led Donna to suspect Stephens was cheating on her with another woman. 

"I kind of laughed when she said that because it kind of was another woman, but not the way you'd expect," Stephens said. "I said it was me, and this is what I'm dealing with." 

Donna suggested Stephens see a therapist, which she did, eventually coming to the conclusion she was transgender.

Donna supported Stephens through her transition, as did most of her extended family. Stephens began living as a woman in every part of her life but work, where she feared the reaction to revealing her "true self." 

"I hated that every day I had to go, because I was not being honest with myself or anybody else at that point," she said.  

She struggled with depression and decided she couldn't go on living as "two separate people," Stephens said. One day in November 2012, she stood in her backyard with a loaded gun to her chest for an hour.

"In my mind, I was thinking: If I can't go forward and I can't go backwards, where does that leave me? I only had one conclusion in my mind, which was to end my life and let it be over," Stephens recalled. 

In the end, she couldn't pull the trigger and went back inside. 

"I realized then and there that I liked me too much," Stephens said. "And the only thing for me to do was to choose life and move forward, regardless."  

Shortly after, she started drafting the letter that she would present to Rost and her colleagues. 

Hardship after firing

Aimee Stephens

Rost weighed several factors in considering Stephens' proposal back in 2013, said Bursch, representing the funeral home. 

"His first thought was for Stephens and everything Stephens was going through, as well as Stephens' wife," Bursch said.

Rost also considered how his decision would affect female employees who would be sharing a bathroom with Stephens, as well as how Harris Homes' grieving clients would receive a funeral director who was a transgender woman.

"Ultimately, he decided the best thing for everyone was for the funeral home to continue abiding by its sex-specific dress code," Bursch said.   

Rost has said he believes the Bible teaches that a person's sex is "an immutable God-given gift," that it is wrong for a person to "deny" his or her God-given sex, and "wrong for a biological male to deny his sex by dressing as a woman," according to court records. 

Stephens, who initially wanted to become a pastor and spent a year in seminary, was surprised by the remarks. 

"Having studied the Bible, I know that's not in the Bible," she said. 

"If he’s read and studied, and this is the conclusion he’s come to, that’s certainly his right. But that’s where his right ends. His belief doesn’t give him the option of discriminating against somebody else and the way they believe." 

Stephens said she struggled to find work in the funeral home industry after her firing, despite her decades of experience. She had interviews, second and third interviews, then her calls wouldn't be returned, she said. 

She and Donna had to sell some of their possessions to get by financially. "We're survivors," she said. 

Stephens eventually got a position as an autopsy technician at the Detroit Medical Center's Sinai-Grace Hospital dissecting bodies for pathologists.

She worked through the end of 2014 when her kidneys failed. Between doctor's appointments and dialysis treatments, she couldn't work full-time and was forced to retire, she said. 

Despite the financial hardship, Stephens has not regretted challenging Rost's decision, though she never expected the case to go all the way to the high court. 

"I believe in what I'm doing. I've stood up for myself to make sure that it happens. That's what keeps me going," she said. 

"If you're part of the human race, which we all are, we all deserve the same basic rights. We're not asking for anything special. We're just asking to be treated like other people are."