Aimee Stephens, a transgender Michigan woman whose 2013 firing is the focus of a Supreme Court case over LGBTQ rights, died Tuesday in Detroit. She was 59.
The American Civil Liberties Union confirmed the news in a statement, calling Stephens ― who had been battling kidney disease for several years ― “a hero and a trailblazer.”
Stephens, who was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, had planned to become a Baptist minister but eventually pivoted to funeral services. Until 2013, she was employed as a licensed funeral home director and embalmer at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes.
After working at the company’s Garden City, Michigan, location for nearly six years, Stephens told owner Thomas Rost in a letter that she was transgender. In accordance with the funeral home’s dress code for female employees, she would wear conservative dresses and skirt suits moving forward.
About two weeks after coming out to her boss, Stephens learned she’d been fired. Rost, she said, offered severance along with a deal preventing her from seeking legal action for her dismissal.
Stephens sued the funeral home for sex discrimination, arguing that she lost her job because of her gender identity.
“I felt what they did to me wasn’t right. In fact, it was downright wrong,” she told The Associated Press in 2019. “But I also realized it wasn’t just me, that there were others in the world facing the same tune.”
After years in lower courts, the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in the case, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in October 2019.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, expected later this year, will decide if sexuality and gender identity are included under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which protects against discrimination on the basis of sex.
Stephens’ case is also historically significant as the first to deal directly with the rights of transgender people in the U.S. under the law. It’s expected to have a major effect on LGBTQ rights cases.
Rost, for his part, has never disputed the timeline of Stephens’ accusations but called the case “a pawn to achieve a larger political goal” in a 2019 Washington Post opinion article.
Regardless of the outcome, Stephens told Vox last year, she hoped her case would encourage others to “always strive to be who you are.”
“Deep down you know who you are and don’t let anyone else tell you any different,” she said. “Hold your head high and keep marching forward. It will get better.”
Following her 2013 dismissal, Stephens got a job as an autopsy technician in a metro Detroit hospital. She resigned in late 2014 due to her declining health.
She is survived by her wife, Donna Stephens, who called her “an inspiration.”
“She has given so many hope for the future of equality for LGBTQ people in our country, and she has rewritten history,” Donna Stephens said.