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A Plaintiff In The Supreme Court Nondiscrimination Case Did Not Get To See Victory

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Supreme Court's historic ruling yesterday that gay, lesbian and transgender employees are protected under workplace discrimination laws - it is a major win for the LGBTQ community. But not everyone involved in the case was there to see the victory. Aimee Stephens was the sole transgender plaintiff, and Stephens died last month. From member station WDET in Detroit, Eli Newman has this remembrance.

ELI NEWMAN, BYLINE: Aimee Stephens was born in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1960, where she earned a degree in mortuary science and learned to prepare bodies for viewing. She also studied religion and once had plans to become a Baptist minister. She worked nearly 20 years in funeral services and eventually moved to Redford, Mich., married and had a daughter, Elizabeth. There, she became a director at R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, a family-run business in suburban Detroit.

While she says she was aware of her gender identity as early as age 5, Stephens presented as male for most of her life. When she came out as a transgender woman to family 10 years ago, she did so in stages, as she explained last year on WDET's "Detroit Today" talk show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

AIMEE STEPHENS: Prior, I was living as a woman at home and in public and only presented as male at work, and I got to the point that I couldn't keep living two separate lives.

NEWMAN: Stephens says she struggled to show her true self at her job and became increasingly desperate, contemplating suicide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STEPHENS: Instead, I chose to live. I realized that I liked me too much, and I had too much to live for.

NEWMAN: In 2013, nearly six years into the job, Stephens wrote to the Harris Funeral Home that she intended to have sex reassignment surgery and planned to live and work as a woman. Two weeks later, she was told by the funeral home's owner that the public would not be accepting of her transition and was fired.

Stephens then approached the ACLU, where lawyers helped her file a complaint that became a lawsuit against the funeral home. That suit eventually reached the Supreme Court. The argument centered on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and prohibitions on sex discrimination.

ACLU of Michigan's Jay Kaplan says while the court's decision is a step forward, it comes just one week after the Trump administration imposed new restrictions on transgender rights.

JAY KAPLAN: They issued a new rule saying that transgender people are not protected under the Affordable Care Act from discrimination in accessing health care and health insurance coverage. So it does seem like a tremendous progress, but we still have a long way to go.

NEWMAN: Donna Stephens agrees. She was married to Aimee for 20 years.

DONNA STEPHENS: I know that there's a lot of work that still needs to be done. I do believe that if Aimee was still here that she would be at the forefront, fighting for us to continue on.

NEWMAN: Aimee Stephens died at age 59 last month from complications related to kidney failure, an ailment she dealt with through the entirety of her case. Donna Stephens says her spouse believed in equality for all and considers it an act of courage to take her case to court in the first place.

STEPHENS: The fact that she's going to be known throughout history is just mind-boggling. She treated everyone fairly and with kindness, and I think that's what she just wanted the world to do.

NEWMAN: A memorial to commemorate Aimee Stephens and the role she played will be held once COVID-19 restrictions are fully lifted.

For NPR News, I'm Eli Newman in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS SONG, "LUCKY TO BE ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 17, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous Web summary of this story misspelled Aimee Stephens' last name as Stevens.