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The ACLU of Michigan hosted a party for their client Aimee Stephens at Affirmations Wednesday, Oct. 2, as she prepared to take her landmark case to the Supreme Court this week. Chances are you’ve heard the name Aimee Stephens by now. She’s the courageous woman who sued the R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes after being fired for coming out as transgender.
Stephens had worked for the firm for six years when she revealed to her boss that she identified as female and would be dressing to match her gender identity. And for choosing to live as her authentic self, Stephens was terminated.
Feeling she had been wronged, and looking for some sort of recourse, Stephens reached out the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan who in turn referred her to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC, after an investigation, determined that she had been discriminated against on the basis of sex under federal civil rights law. So Stephens sued and she sort of won the first round. The court decided that she had, in fact, been discriminated against but ruled that the Harris Funeral Homes had a right to do so based on their religious beliefs.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, disagreed and reversed the lower court’s decision. Then Harris Funeral Homes appealed the case to the Supreme Court, who chose to hear it. The case will be before them this week and the party, complete with pizza and cake, was to encourage Stephens as she prepared to head to Washington.
“Aimee, we all know that this has not been easy for you and we thank you very much for being here this evening,” said Dave Garcia, executive director of Affirmations LGBTQ community center, at the start of the night. “I am reminded on days like today that the Obama administration and Obama’s Justice Department argued that Title VII protects sexual orientation and gender identity under sex discrimination. Many courts have agreed with that assessment. It is a disgrace that the current administration has argued the exact opposite policy.”
Garcia was bold in his admonition of religious conservatives.
“I have said before and I will say again, these religious exemptions are the single greatest threat to the LGBT movement since HIV,” he said. “And let me be unequivocally clear: no Bible, no Koran, nor any religious text supersedes the constitution of the United States. Your religion does not give you a free card to discriminate. I say to every conservative Christian out there: stop hiding behind your Bible and denying others the same basic human rights that you enjoy.”
Jay Kaplan, ACLU Michigan’s LGBT Project staff attorney, was a little more subdued in his presentation.
“I’m going to be honest with you, unlike the marriage equality case, where we couldn’t wait to get it in front of the Supreme Court because we thought we were going to have some momentum, that something was going to happen, these were not cases that we were hoping that the court would take up. We know that the Supreme Court has become more conservative during this administration because of the two appointments to the court.”
Still, Kaplan said he remained cautiously optimistic.
“We think we have a pretty conservative argument. Title VII says you can’t discriminate on the basis of sex. Aimee was fired because she’s transgender. The very definition of what it means to be transgender is to identify differently from the sex that was assigned to you at birth,” he said. “… We feel that we’re ready for this and we really believe that the law is going to be on our side.”
Stephens, herself, spoke only briefly at the end of the night.
“I’d just like to say thank you for all your support,” she said. “It’s not been an easy road, but it’s been bearable because of people like you.”
Michelle Fox-Phillips, executive director of the Gender-Identity Network Alliance, said that the effects of Stephens’ efforts could not be overestimated.
“This lady is such an amazing inspiration to the trans community,” Fox-Phillips said. “She is going to make history for our community. And hopefully, come June of next year, we will be equal.”
Transgender Michigan Executive Director Rachel Crandall-Crocker agreed.
“Aimee is one of the bravest people I know,” she said. “She inspires me to do the work I do. She truly is the epitome of transgender visibility.”