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The transgender woman whose employment discrimination lawsuit lead to a pivotal U.S. Supreme Court case on LGBTQ rights has died, her family said.
Aimee Stephens, 59, who had suffered from kidney disease, had been in hospice care at her home in recent days. Her brother-in-law, John Pedit, told the Detroit News that Stephens passed away on Tuesday.
Stephens, the first transgender woman to have a civil rights complaint heard by the nation’s highest court, sued her employer, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, of Garden City, Mich., after she was fired in 2013 for informing her boss, Thomas Rost, that she intended to come to work in women’s clothes.
Stephens had previously identified as transgender, and dressed according to her gender identity, in her private life for years prior to deciding to come out at work.
Rost claimed that he had a right to terminate Stephens for failing to comply to the home’s employee dress code, based on his religious beliefs that gender is fixed and determined by one’s biological sex at birth. He claimed those beliefs were protected by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Stephens filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which ruled that her rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act had been violated and filed a lawsuit against the funeral home chain on her behalf. In the lawsuit, she claimed she had been discriminated against based on her sex, her gender identity, and her failure to adhere to gender norms or sex stereotypes of how a woman is supposed to appear, dress, and act.
In 2018, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Stephens’ favor, finding that the funeral home had unlawfully discriminated against her based on sex and sex-stereotyping. Rost’s lawyers, with the right-wing legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom, appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. The Trump administration sided with Rost, arguing that Title VII’s prohibitions on sex discrimination only apply to those discriminated against based on their assigned sex at birth.
The high court heard arguments in the case in October, but has not yet issued a decision as to whether transgender individuals are protected by Title VII. A decision is expected by July, and could be issued as soon as Thursday, May 14.
Donna Stephens issued a statement thanking all those who had supported her wife over the years.
“Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your kindness, generosity, and keeping my best friend and soulmate in your thoughts and prayers,” she said. “Aimee is an inspiration. She has given so many hope for the future of equality for LGBTQ people in our country, and she has rewritten history. The outpouring of love and support is our strength and inspiration now.”
Chase Strangio, the deputy director for Trans Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project and a member of Stephens’ legal team, released a statement honoring his late client.
“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,” Strangio said.
“When Aimee decided to fight back after she was fired for being transgender, she just wanted it to be acknowledged that what happened to her was wrong. Being a part of Aimee’s team at the Supreme Court has been one of the proudest moments of my life because of the amazing person behind the case,” Strangio 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 National Center for Transgender Equality called Stephens a “hero in the fight for equal rights for all people.”
“Aimee was deeply committed to justice and fairness, and an incredible person,” Mara Keisling, the executive director of NCTE, said in a statement. “She has left us too soon. We send our deepest sympathies to Aimee’s wife, Donna, and to all her friends, families and supporters.”
“It is heartbreaking that Aimee Stephens has passed away before the resolution of her historic case, which is the culmination of decades of federal case law holding that Title VII protects transgender workers,” Shannon Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in a statement. “No matter how her case is resolved, Aimee will be remembered as a central figure who helped to humanize transgender people and to highlight the discrimination faced by many transgender workers.
“Aimee’s career was devoted to serving others and to living out her faith, which was an essential part of her identity,” Minter added. “Like so many other transgender people, I am grateful for Aimee’s courage and willingness to put herself on the line to stand up for the dignity and equality of all people.”
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