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LGBTQ icon Aimee Stephens found 'second purpose' fighting her case

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Donna Stephens was working last month at home when the text came through from her lawyer. She read itand cried. 

"Aimee, we won," she said. 

But the place where her wife, Aimee Stephens, would have sat was empty. Aimee, 59, died in May at their Redford home due to kidney disease. 

Five weeks after the hospice nurses had left and Aimee was buried in North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor. 

Donna Stephens, widow of Aimee Stephens, sits in front of her Redford home, June 25, 2020. Aimee, who died in May, won a lawsuit after the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The case stemmed from Aimee suing her employer, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Garden City, for firing her after she announced she was transitioning from male to female in 2013. 

The blockbuster 6-3 decision enshrined a long-sought protection for transgender people like Aimee from being fired over their gender identity — a major victory for LGBTQ Americans. 

Few had heard of Aimee before the justices took her case last year. But within months, she became a superstar in the LGBTQ community. Her case marked the first time the Supreme Court ever heard arguments involving the civil rights of a transgender person.

Aimee never intended to become a civil rights icon, but for thousands struggling for transgender equality, her case went to the core of their right to work, earn a living and support their families. 

Donna, married to Aimee for 20 years, still seems dazed by the outcome. 

"The thought that 100 years from now, folks are going to be looking back and saying, look, you know, Aimee Stephens did this ..." she said, trailing off. 

Childhood love 

Aimee and Donna had known one another their whole lives. They met as young children, when Aimee went by a different name, growing up as family friends. Donna traveled from Michigan in the summers to help on the farm in North Carolina. 

Their bond was tight even as kids. Donna recalls standing in the living room of Aimee's parents' home proclaiming with the confidence of a 10-year-old that the two of them would get married some day. "We were like two peas in a pod," she said.

They each went on to marry and divorce someone else before reconnecting after 15 years apart. "We were kinda like, what the heck were we doing all this time? It was an instant connection again," Donna said.  

So 20 years ago, Aimee moved to Michigan to be with Donna, who lives on the same block in Redford where she grew up. 

Aimee was still presenting as a man when she became increasingly withdrawn and depressed 10 years into their marriage. The growing tension between them led Donna to suspect Aimee was seeing another woman. 

One night, Aimee confessed what she'd been hiding about her "true self." Donna felt relieved, she said. She couldn't fathom losing Aimee to someone else. 

"I said, 'This is something we can work with,'" Donna recalled. "I was like, 'You're my best friend. I've known you all my life. I'm not going anywhere.' But it was a hard transition for me because the marriage, it changes."

Donna said she had much to learn about what "transgender" meant and sought counsel from some other transgender individuals to better understand. "It was just a slow progression of a new path in our life," she said. 

Aimee began living as a woman in every part of her life but work, where she feared what the reaction would be. Donna was dreading the day that Aimee came out to her boss at Harris Homes, she said, bracing for her to get fired.

"I could see living the double life was really tearing her apart," Donna said. 

Donna Stephens, at left, with wife Aimee, who died in May.

Out of a job

In 2013, Aimee gave her boss, Thomas Rost, a letter explaining she was transgender and would begin following the home's dress code for women. Rost fired her two weeks later, offering a severance.

Donna was indignant. "You're not going to accept this," she told Aimee. 

Shortly after, Aimee met with an attorney, Jay Kaplan at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, who investigated. 

"From the get-go, she was resolute about the idea that this was wrong, and she needed to do something about that," Kaplan said.  

With the ACLU's help, Aimee took her story to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which said she had a case. The ACLU asked Aimee how far she was willing to take her complaint, Donna said. 

"She said, 'I'll go all the way with it,' " Donna said. "They knew her face would be put out there, and she said, 'No, I want to go for it.' " 

The legal battle went on for about seven years —about as long as Aimee had worked for Harris Homes.Aimee wasn't the type to give up on something, Donna said. 

"She always treated everyone fairly, so to her this was an injustice and she wanted for it to be fixed," Donna said.

Aimee struggled to find work in the funeral home industry after her firing, despite her decades of experience. She and Donna, an administrative assistant for an engineering firm, had to sell some of their possessions to get by. 

Aimee ultimately got hired as an autopsy technician at a Detroit hospital and worked until her kidneys failed at the end of 2014. Her health continued to decline. She had to rely on a wheelchair to get around Washington, D.C., when she went to hear arguments before the High Court in October.

She skipped a dialysis session to make the trip and did back-to-back media interviews the day before the court session. She kept going until she became physically ill and had to go to her room to rest, Kaplan said.

He recalled the quiet-spoken Aimee being wheeled out of the Supreme Court building after the arguments to hundreds of people cheering her name and dozens wanting to shake her hand. 

Michigan’s Aimee Stephens, flanked by wife Donna at left and ACLU attorney Ria Tabacco Mar, greets well-wishers outside the U.S. Supreme Court after the justices heard arguments in her case. Rally-goers outside the court chanted her name as she left the building.

"I think she found that second purpose in her life through being the face of this case and seeing how her involvement could help other transgender people," Kaplan said. 

"She was a very unassuming person — not somebody who was looking for the spotlight ... but who had a way of telling her story. This was a new thing for her, and she more than rose to that occasion." 

Health breakdown

Aimee's condition worsened after she returned to Michigan, where she spent months in and out of the hospital.

Donna got up at 4 a.m. three days a week to take her for dialysis before work. Donna said she got into the morbid habit of checking whether Aimee was still alive when she got home at day's end.

This spring, ACLU lawyers called every so often to say a ruling might come the next day, but then it didn't. The anticipation waned as the weeks passed with no decision.

Donna and Aimee sometimes pondered the ruling, on which they were split down the middle. Aimee felt she wouldn't win because of the court's conservative tilt. Donna was confident the justices would "do the right thing." 

"It was kind of like having a U of M-MSU household," she said, laughing.

Weeks passed with still no ruling, and Aimee went into hospice care. All of Donna's energy and concentration went into keeping her comfortable amid the pain.

Aimee died on a Tuesday, and her remains were transported to North Carolina to be buried next to her parents.

Donna couldn't afford to go but also had reservations about traveling during the pandemic. Her brother and Aimee's two sisters were there and laid carnations at the grave.

Two days after the Supreme Court's ruling, a cemetery employee called to ask if this was the same Aimee Stephens who was on the news. It was, Donna said. 

Donna chose the epitaph for the stone to be placed next month: "Civil Rights Leader." 

mburke@detroitnews.com