Aimee Stephens, Transgender Woman at Heart of Supreme Court Battle, Dies

Aimee Stephens was a trailblazer for transgender rights. But her legacy could reach even further.

[Photo: An older transwoman smiles as she is escorted out of the Supreme Court by her legal team.]
Fired from her job in 2013 after she told her employer she intended to transition, Stephens was the plaintiff and face of the first major transgender rights case in U.S. Supreme Court history. Courtesy of ACLU via Molly Kaplan

Every case tells a story, but not every case has at its center a plaintiff as compelling as Aimee Stephens.

Fired from her job in 2013 after she told her employer she intended to transition, Stephens was the plaintiff and face of the first major transgender rights case in U.S. Supreme Court history. She died at her suburban Detroit home Tuesday, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which represented Stephens in her case. She died of complications related to kidney failure, the New York Times reported. She was 59.

Stephens worked her way up the ranks of Harris Funeral Homes in Michigan, starting as an apprentice and then serving as a funeral director from 2008 to 2013. In July 2013, Stephens shared a note with her supervisor, funeral home owner Thomas Rost, as well as with friends and colleagues, disclosing she had struggled with her gender identity her whole life.

“I realize that some of you may have trouble understanding this,” Stephens wrote in the letter. “In truth, I have had to live with it every day of my life, and even I do not fully understand it myself.”

Stephens told Rost that her first step in her transition was to live and work full-time as a woman for a year. Stephens had a vacation planned and when she returned, she intended to work in what was considered appropriate business attire for women at the funeral home—a skirt suit.

Rost fired Stephens two weeks later. 

“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,” Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project and a member of Stephens’ legal team, said in a statement. 

As Katelyn Burns of Vox rightly noted, Stephens life “is a reminder of the devastating costs of discrimination—and the determination to fight it.”

Stephens lost her job for coming out as transgender. She faced constant and persistent misgendering by those opposing her employment discrimination claims, including from the Trump administration, driving home the fact they were fighting against her very right to live a life true to herself. The financial strain from the job loss meant her family was forced to crowdsource her end-of-life care. Stephens, a hero and a trailblazer, was also a reminder of just how sadly common those tragic notes are in the stories of transgender people.  

And hers is a story I can’t properly eulogize. As a cisgender woman, I will never face the kind of discrimination Stephens did. It’s hard to imagine a world where being a woman so upsets and offends my employer that they feel their only recourse is to fire me.

There’s also no denying that should the Roberts Court side with Stephens and find that firing someone for being trans is a violation on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s ban on sex-stereotyping (and not merely an employer enforcing company dress code), that I stand to benefit from that decision. That’s because what Stephens’ case clarified is the fact that conservatives have no problem weaponizing their generalized discomfort with trans people and trans bodies to attack sex and gender equality more broadly.

Any employee who does not fit a gender binary, or any employee whose life does not fit into the tidy and narrow boxes of traditional gender norms, stands to benefit from a decision in Stephens’ favor. 

That fact wasn’t lost on Stephens. 

“I found it a little overwhelming when I realized that I could be in the history books,” Stephens told Burns in an interview with Vox shortly before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in her case. “Somebody’s gotta do it and I’d be happy and satisfied to be that person.”

At the core of Stephens’ case lingers a deceptively and devastatingly simple question: Can your boss fire you for simply for who you are? 

Stephens died before the Roberts Court would answer.