DETROIT – Aimee Stephens, a transgender Michigan woman whose case questioning whether federal law protected transgender individuals from job discrimination became the first of its kind to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, died Tuesday. She was 59.
Stephens, a former funeral home employee who said she was fired in 2013 for being transgender, was still awaiting what could be a landmark decision by the court, which is expected by the end of next month. The American Civil Liberties Union, which helped present the case to the court, announced Stephens’ death Tuesday afternoon.
“Aimee did not set out to be a hero and a trailblazer, but she is one, and our country owes her a debt of gratitude for her commitment to justice for all people and her dedication to our transgender community,” said Chase Strangio, a member of Stephens’ legal team and an ACLU official.
Freedom for All Americans, an advocacy group for LBGTQ individuals based in Washington, D.C., noted that Stephens’ was the first-ever transgender civil rights case to be heard by the court.
“In the face of an employer who fired her for being her true self, Aimee came forward to share her personal story in front of the court and millions of Americans,” said Kasey Suffredini, the group’s CEO and national campaign director. “In honor of Aimee Stephens’ life, it’s more important than ever that the court rule on the side of dignity, respect, and fairness for all LGBTQ Americans.”
Her death is not expected to impact the court’s deliberations on a decision, since the case is so far along and there are other cases in which the estate of a deceased party to a case has continued to pursue an outcome.
No cause for Stephen’s death was given, though she suffered kidney failure in 2014 and had been on dialysis three times a week when the Free Press spoke to her in 2019.
The ACLU said her wife, Donna Stephens, was with Aimee when she died.
Stephens, who was a biologically assigned male at birth, confronted her boss at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home in Garden City in 2013, saying in a letter she wished to begin dressing as a woman at work after having done so outside of work for some time. The funeral home owner, a devout Christian who had a strict gender-based dress code, said it wouldn’t work out and eventually fired her.
Having considered killing herself a year before that, she told the Free Press she had no regrets in sending the letter, saying her feeling that she needed to be true to herself was too strong. “It was either send the letter or not be here anymore,” she said.
But she decided to challenge the decision of the funeral home owner, Thomas Rost, who offered her a severance package that she turned down before firing her, in court.
Her lawyers argued that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against transgender people, even if that legislation doesn’t specifically mention transgender individuals. They argued that under that law, the Supreme Court has ruled in the past against the use of sex stereotypes in employment actions and that, as such, an employer shouldn’t be able to sack someone for not conforming to their notions of gender distinctions.
It was an argument that seemed ripe for the time, given recent legal decisions which have expanded rights for same-sex couples and others. In 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.
In 2018, a three-judge panel at the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled for Stephens, saying any kind of gender consideration must be “irrelevant” to employment decisions.
But Rost and his lawyers appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, arguing that the 6th Circuit went too far, defining gender as a personal disposition and not as a biological fact. And they said it was the latter definition, not the former, that was held by Congress to be the case in 1964 when it passed the Civil Rights Act.
They also noted that Rost’s gender-based dress code would have applied equally to a transgender man as a woman, making it equitable in their view.
With two new justices – Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – on what is widely viewed as a more conservative court, Stephens’ chances of winning a landmark decision remain unclear. The court heard her case on the same day as two other sexual orientation discrimination cases which involved the firing of gay individuals.
John Bursch, a Michigan lawyer who represented Rost before the Supreme Court, argued that to allow the decision to stand would be to open all sorts of gender-based programs, including those which are intended to benefit women who are assigned that gender at birth, to men who made the transition to becoming women.
“When you do that, there is no sex discrimination standard under (the law) anymore. It’s been completely blown up,” Bursch said.
David Cole, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union who argued Stephens’ case before the Supreme Court in October, said the court had already decided that sex stereotypes couldn’t be used in employment decisions and that including transgender individuals in that protection was only natural.
While companies are allowed gender-based dress codes under the law, Cole said that Rost insisting Stephens dress as a man “is saying I object to you because you fail to conform to this stereotype: The stereotype that if you are assigned a male sex at birth, you must live and identify for your entire life as a man.”
“That is a true generalization for most of us, but it is not true for 1.5 million transgender Americans,” he added.
Follow Todd Spangler on Twitter: @tsspangler.