Aimee Stephens Takes Her Trans Rights Case To The Supreme Court

by Oct 7, 2019Politics, Queer Life, Trans Life

This week the US Supreme Court will hear three cases dealing with queer and trans rights, cases that ask the court to decide whether it is legal to fire someone who is queer and/or trans under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition on discrimination based on sex. The subject of one of these cases, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is Aimee Stephens.

Stephens had worked at R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes as a funeral director for nearly six years until, when she informed the owner and her coworkers that she is trans, she was fired. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued on her behalf, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that her employer engaged in unlawful sex discrimination when it fired her for being trans.

Stephens says that she knew she was a girl as early as five years old. She began to work with a therapist in 2008 and, by 2012, had made the decision to inform her employer and coworkers that she is a woman. Two weeks after she came out to her boss in a letter she’d written, she was fired, which left her and her wife without health insurance when her kidneys failed.

“He read the letter, folded it up and put in his pocket, and we were basically done for that day,” Stephens said in an interview with the Associated Press. Stephens and her boss met again, briefly, 2 weeks later. “He handed me a letter and said this is not going to work,” she said.

Sexual orientation or gender identity have never been expressly included by Congress in Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination because of sex. Bills have been several times over recent years that would do so, but none of them have seen much hope of passing.

While the Obama administration had taken a supportive stance of protections against discrimination for queer and trans people, the current administration has taken the opposite view, claiming that employers should be allowed to fired people for being queer and/or trans. This stance also means that Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who will be officially representing the EEOC at the Supreme Court, will also be arguing against the EEOC’s position.

Stephens has some strong defenders in her corner, though, including Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT & HIV Project.

“Tuesday may feature the first time the word ‘transgender’ is spoken during oral arguments in the highest court in the United States,” said Strangio in the Washington Post. “And when the justices look out from the bench and see my co-counsel and me at counsel table, it may be the first time they have looked at transgender attorneys defending our own existence before their powerful bench.”

The case is important because more than half the states in the US still allow discrimination in employment because of gender identity or sexual orientation. In Stephens’ home state of Michigan, the civil rights commission ended up interpreted existing state law to protect LGBT people from workplace bias last year. That decision doesn’t affect Stephens, though, having been fired in 2013.

This case is one of the first involving rights for queer and trans people since one of the Supreme Court’s biggest proponents of gay rights, Justice Anthony Kennedy, retired in July 2018. It’s unlikely that a decision in this case, whatever it may be, would be heard before spring of 2020.

Stephens plans to attend the arguments in the Supreme Court despite her need for dialysis treatments three times per week because of her kidney failure.

“I felt what they did to me wasn’t right. In fact, it was downright wrong,” Stephens said. “But I also realized it wasn’t just me, that there were others in the world facing the same tune.”

Stephens has continued her struggle, despite mounting health issues, because of the current administration and their changes to Obama administration policies allowing trans people to use school bathrooms corresponding to their identity, and to serve openly in the military.

“With all the things that have come out, with the way that transgender people are being treated, basically trying to be forcibly erased from society, I have no regrets at all about it,” she said. “I’m happy being me. It’s taken a long time.”