civil rights

The Woman at the Center of a Major Trans Rights Case Has Died

Aimee Stephens died Tuesday at the age of 59. Photo: Paul Sancya/AP/Shutterstock

The U.S. Supreme Court will rule soon on a major discrimination case, but the woman who inspired it won’t get to see the decision. Aimee Stephens, whose life was at the center of R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, died at home on Tuesday, the Detroit News reported. She suffered from kidney disease, and a GoFundMe campaign to help her wife, Donna, with her care remains active.

Stephens was fired from her job at a Michigan funeral home in 2013 after she informed her supervisors that she was trans. “With the support of my loving wife, I have decided to become the person that my mind already is. I cannot begin to describe the shame and suffering that I have lived with. At the end of my vacation on August 26, 2013, I will return to work as my true self, Aimee Australia Stephens, in appropriate business attire,” she wrote. But the funeral home refused to allow her to wear women’s clothing, and fired her when she would not comply with an order to dress like a man. The federal Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission later sued the funeral home on her behalf in 2014.

At the crux of Stephens’s legal case is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Attorneys for Stephens have argued that the protections of Title VII also apply to trans people, whose gender identities make them frequent targets of discrimination at work. Conservatives, meanwhile, have insisted that advocates for Stephens favor an overly broad interpretation of Title VII, which if upheld by the Supreme Court, undermine the religious freedom rights of employers who believe it’s a sin to be gay or trans.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Stephens’s favor, but the conservative makeup of the Supreme Court means that Stephens’s case has an uncertain outcome. During arguments in October, justices appeared split along ideological lines, with the liberals seeming to favor Stephens while the conservatives adopted a more skeptical tone. Despite her ill health, Stephens traveled from Michigan to Washington, D.C., to watch the court debate her case.

“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, who belonged to Stephens’s legal team and is a staff attorney for the ACLU. He added, “As a member of her legal team, I am deeply sad for this loss. As a transgender person and an advocate, I am filled with both grief and rage that we have lost an elder far too soon. As we, and millions, carry her work for justice forward, may she rest in power and continue to guide us on this path.”

The Woman at the Center of Major Trans Rights Case Has Died