LGBTQ+

Trans Woman Behind Historic LGBTQ+ Supreme Court Case Dies Before Ruling

Aimee Stephens was behind the first case involving the rights of transgender people to go before the nation’s highest court.

Transgender activist Aimee Stephen sits in her wheelchair outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on October 8, 2019, as the Court holds oral arguments in three cases dealing with workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. | Getty Images
Transgender activist Aimee Stephen sits in her wheelchair outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on October 8, 2019, as the Court holds oral arguments in three cases dealing with workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. | Getty Images

Aimee Stephens, the central figure in a landmark Supreme Court case that could determine the future of transgender people’s rights at work, has died before the ruling. She was 59.

Stephens’ death on Tuesday has been attributed to complications from kidney disease, and she died at home in Detroit, Michigan, where she lived with her wife, Donna Stephens.

She was behind the first major case involving the rights of transgender people to go before the nation’s highest court, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The Supreme Court began hearing the case in October and is expected to reach a decision this year.

“Aimee did not set out to be a hero and a trailblazer, but she is one,” Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project and member of Stephens’ legal team, said in a statement. “Our country owes her a debt of gratitude for her commitment to justice for all people and her dedication to our transgender community.”

In 2013, Stephens was fired by R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Detroit two weeks after coming as transgender in a letter to her boss. She had worked there for nearly six years as a funeral director. After she was fired, Stephens sued the funeral home, claiming that she was fired because she was transgender, and her case has been backed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and ACLU.

“I realize that some of you may have trouble understanding this. In truth, I have had to live with it every day of my life and even I do not fully understand it myself,” she wrote in the letter, described by The Washington Post. “As distressing as this is sure to be to my friends and some of my family, I need to do this for myself and for my own peace of mind, and to end the agony in my soul.”

In 2018, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Stephens’ firing was unlawful and that transgender people should be protected by anti-discrimination laws. The funeral home challenged that decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last year.

Stephens’ case is one of three before the Supreme Court that involve LGBTQ+ people who claim they were fired on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Their lawyers argue that their employment should be protected by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which makes it illegal to fire employees based on characteristcs including race, sex, and religion.

A GoFundMe was set up five days ago to cover Stephens’ end-of-life costs. The fundraiser’s description says that she developed kidney disease five years ago that required frequent dialysis. Stephens’ health problems paired with unemployment “caused an immediate financial strain,” according to the GoFundMe page, and funds raised will help her wife Donna pay for the funeral.
 
ACLU attorney Jay Kaplan, a friend of Stephens, told the Daily Beast that she had “‘expressed a number of times’ that she hoped to live to hear the Supreme Court’s decision.”