Aimee Stephens gave one of her final televised interviews in January of this year, wearing a tasteful pantsuit, sitting next to her wife, explaining on NBC’s “Today” how she’d once stood in her backyard contemplating suicide because she couldn’t bear to live as a closeted transgender woman. “But I realized I couldn’t go through with it,” she said. “I was important enough to keep going.”
So she came out, in 2013. She wrote a letter to her colleagues at a Michigan funeral home explaining that she would now be using a different name and wearing different clothes. It was difficult, but she did it, and the funeral home fired her because of it, and she sued.
On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that Stephens’s dismissal seven years ago was wrong. Six of nine justices agreed that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination “because of sex,” protects LGBTQ employees.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, wrote the court’s majority opinion. Those of us who don’t make a habit of reading Supreme Court opinions might have skipped it in favor of skimming the news headlines. I recommend wading into the decision itself, though. It’s history, after all. It’s good to see how many citations and addendums go into the documents that will inform our rights as citizens.
One of the opinion’s repeated arguments is that the issue of sex discrimination cannot be viewed only as the equal treatment of men and women as classes, but as the rights of individual men, individual women, individual humans. An employer who has a blanket ban on hiring both lesbians and gay men might be technically treating women and men equally, but this perverse version of equality means nothing to the individual employee who has lost his job for bringing his husband to the company picnic. “An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” Gorsuch wrote.
Gorsuch has a libertarian bent, and constitutional scholars might argue this is where the focus on the individual comes from. But in the opinion it has a more poetic effect: There is law, and there are policies, and there are companies and the jigsaw puzzle of “compliance” — and there’s a rope-ladder of courts, District to Supreme, made up of jurists who might, like Samuel Alito, write a catty dissent invoking pirate ships and the ghost of Antonin Scalia, or who might, like Gorsuch, agree that the law means Aimee Stephens deserves to keep her job.
And then, there are the individuals. The Aimees. The human beings whose lives give meaning to the law, and test whether something is merely legal, or actually just.
Aimee Stephens didn’t get to reclaim her job. She died of kidney failure last month.
The case outlived her, just as it had outlived Don Zarda, another plaintiff in Monday’s decision. He was a skydiving instructor. Back in 2010, preparing for a tandem jump, he reassured a nervous female customer that he was gay, and then he was fired, and then he sued.
He died in 2014, in a base-jumping accident. It was four years after he’d lost his livelihood, but six years before the Supreme Court would finally decide that he shouldn’t have. He “would just be beyond excited,” his mother, Shirley, told the New York Post of the court’s decision.
Aimee and Don were not trying to do anything but exist. They died while the legal system was still treating their existence as if it were a matter of philosophical debate. That’s one of the struggles of America, though. We have devil’s advocate debates, and we have provocative op-eds, and majority and minority opinions, and meanwhile our existential questions are someone else’s actual existence.
Seven years of waiting. In the life of the law, it’s a blink. In the life of an individual, it’s an eternity.
Aimee Stephens had been open about her health struggles. Those who followed her story could see her health declining in interview after interview: hair turning from auburn to white, wrinkles papering her skin, the eventual use of a wheelchair.
Year after year, her case meandered through a methodical legal system — motions, objections, filings and appendixes — and Stephens continued to wait. Because she was important enough to keep going. And because, when the country’s moral dilemma is your very own life, you don’t have any choice but to keep living it.
In that same “Today” interview, Stephens acknowledged the vast implications of her case. “It is my life, but it’s also a lot of other people’s lives,” she said.
Monday’s ruling honored her as a hero. It came too late to honor her as a human.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more, visit wapo.st/hesse.