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Aimee Stephens did not start out wanting to be a warrior for transgender rights. She simply wanted to be Aimee Stephens. When she announced she was transgender and would be presenting as her true, female self at her job at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, she was fired for her bravery.
Stephens, who died May 12 at age 59 after a prolonged battled with kidney disease, did not go quietly into the night. Instead, she went to the ACLU.
“I first met her seven years ago when she came into the office after she was fired from her job,” recalled Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project. “My first impression was how professional she was, her poise, the pride that she had in her job. This was not just a paycheck to her. This was something she always wanted to do. As a funeral director, she enjoyed helping families in their time of need.”
Kaplan said Stephens was devastated when she lost her job.
“She had just gotten a raise,” he said. “This had nothing to do with her job ability. This had to do with her trying to be her authentic self at work. She had gone through a long, internal struggle about coming out as a transgender to her family and friends. And, then, the next step is to come out at work and this happens. It was a huge blow.”
As the years passed, Stephens’ case wound its way through the courts. After the EEOC determined that she had been discriminated against on the basis of sex under federal civil rights law, Stephens had good legal standing and she won. The court ruled that she had, in fact, been discriminated against but that the Harris Funeral Homes had a right to do so based on their religious beliefs.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed the lower court’s decision. Then Harris Funeral Homes appealed the case to the Supreme Court, who heard arguments last fall and whose decision is expected next month.
“She always knew that she may not live to hear the decision from the Supreme Court,” Kaplan said. “The day before the Supreme Court hearing she had back-to-back interviews all day long. She kept going until she literally could not stand up anymore.”
Kaplan said he learned a lot about Stephens over the years.
“She was very soft-spoken and had a great sense of humor,” he said. “She had a smile on her face when something was funny. She knew who she was and she felt confident in herself and being able to live with authenticity.”
Stephens, who with her wife Donna, enjoyed watching CSI television shows and HGTV, was also known to enjoy eating out – often steak.
“Her family was from North Carolina and when she could she liked to visit with them and take time with them,” Kaplan continued. “She had studied to be a minister, so she was very knowledgeable about the Bible and very spiritual. She had some very strong thoughts about the way that people would misinterpret the Bible in order to justify homophobia or prejudice against LGBT people.”
And as the case proceeded, Kaplan said that Stephens found a new purpose in life.
“It was this case and telling her story as a transgender woman. I think Aimee blossomed in that role as kind of a spokeswoman not only for the case but for transgender rights. She took the role very seriously. All the messages that she received from the LGBT community meant so much to her, especially when they were from young trans people.”
In the event that she didn’t live to see the Supreme Court’s ruling, Stephens made her wishes clear.
“She wanted this case to go forward,” said Kaplan. “If there’s a favorable decision from the Supreme Court then it goes back to the lower court to determine damages. She was also philosophical and said that if the outcome wasn’t what we wanted in the Supreme Court then we would just go on. The fight goes on. She had a realistic outlook and it was the fight continues.”