Woman fights for civil rights in first-ever transgender case before the Supreme Court 

By: - September 30, 2019 7:05 pm

Aimee Stephens | Charles William Kelly photo

The first case involving the civil rights of transgender people will go before the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 8 to rule whether a federal law against job discrimination on the basis of sex protects transgender people. 

Aimee Stephens, a 58-year-old transgender woman from Ferndale, was fired from her position as a funeral director after informing her boss she was transgender and would wear a conservative skirt or dress to work. Two weeks later, her employer, R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes owner Thomas Rost, handed her a termination letter.

“They said that wasn’t going to work for them and that my services were no longer needed. It hurt,” said Stephens during a press conference with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Monday.

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That was in 2013, prior to the 2018 Michigan Civil Rights Commission interpretation of an existing law that protects LGBTQ people from bias in the workplace.

More than half of states do not prohibit discrimination in employment because of gender identity or sexual orientation.

In 2014, Stephens, with representation from the ACLU, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which agreed to sue the funeral home for sex discrimination.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sustained the complaint and ruled in support of Stephens in March 2017. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review of the case in July 2018.

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Court documents include Rost’s testimony that he fired Stephens because she “was no longer going to represent himself as a man” and would “dress as a woman.”

Aimee Stephens | Charles William Kelly photo

The law in question, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion.

“Many courts and government agencies have long said that firing someone for being transgender, or because of their sexual orientation, is unlawful sex discrimination,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBTQ Project. “And the Supreme Court should agree, rather than withdrawing these protections.”

When Stephens won the case with the EEOC in 2017, the Civil Rights Act was interpreted to protect LGBTQ rights, but the President Trump administration has since reversed that interpretation. 

“The Trump administration is wrongfully urging the United States Supreme Court to take away protections that impact every aspect of LGBTQ lives, from employment to education to housing, health care and more,” Kaplan said. 

Solicitor General Noel Francisco will be representing the EEOC at the Supreme Court as part of the Department of Justice, but Francisco has made it known he is against the EEOC’s position.

Francisco, a supporter of Trump’s LGBTQ protection rollbacks, wrote in the brief to the court that the funeral home owners did not discriminate based on sex and that the term should be interpreted as it was intended in 1964.

“In 1964, the ordinary public meaning of ‘sex’ was biological sex,” Francisco wrote. “In the particular context of Title VII — legislation originally designed to eliminate employment discrimination against racial and other minorities—it was especially clear that the prohibition on discrimination because of ‘sex’ referred to unequal treatment of men and women in the workplace.”

Stephen’s case is one of three Title VII workplace protections for LGBTQ employees cases that will go before the Supreme Court next week. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has filed a brief along with 21 attorneys general arguing that federal anti-discrimination laws should protect LGBTQ employees.

Dana Nessel | Susan J. Demas

These cases are the first LGBTQ rights case since Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the 2015 opinion legalizing same-sex marriage, retired in 2018.

“Never in a million years would I have dreamt that I would be where I am at. But I am here, and now that I’m here I’m not going away,” Stephens said during the press conference. “Regardless of what comes down as far as the decision, I’m still not going away. I’m still here.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8.