“I realize that some of you may have trouble understanding this. In truth, I have had to live with it every day of my life and even I do not fully understand it myself,” she wrote in the letter, shared with colleagues and friends. “As distressing as this is sure to be to my friends and some of my family, I need to do this for myself and for my own peace of mind, and to end the agony in my soul.”
She presented the letter to her employer on July 31, 2013, revealing her intention to come to work as a woman. Her boss folded it up and put it in his pocket, saying nothing more than “Okay.”
Two weeks later, Stephens was fired.
Now, the Supreme Court is reading Stephens’s letter, too.
Stephens’s termination is one of three cases that the high court agreed to hear last week that each tackle the long unsettled question of whether federal anti-discrimination laws apply to employees based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.
In Stephens’s case, the Supreme Court will decide whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which already prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, also protects transgender people. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have passed anti-discrimination protections based on gender identity, yet the class is left out of the law at the federal level, complicating discrimination complaints brought by transgender people.
Harris Funeral Homes asserts Stephens was fired because “he wanted to dress like a woman,” therefore breaking the dress code, a fireable offense. Stephens’s attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union, however, assert that the funeral homeowner was forcing Stephens to conform to an impermissible sex stereotype, firing her out of fear that her presentation as a woman would “disturb” grieving customers.
To Stephens, the case is simpler.
“People shouldn’t be fired for who they are or what they believe in,” she told The Washington Post. “I mean, plain and simple, it’s the right thing to do."
For Stephens, 58, the journey to the Supreme Court began long before she sat down to draft the consequential letter.
She was about 5 when she began to believe she was somehow different, more interested in playing with dolls than with the other neighborhood boys, she said. But growing up in a conservative Southern Baptist family in Fayetteville, N.C., Stephens said she was never exposed to transgender people, or to any side of the gay community. Her church, she said, was “definitely against it.”
“I didn’t really come around to the other side of the tree until it actually happened to me,” said Stephens, who said she is still a religious person. “Then I started having a little more open mind — maybe things I learned weren’t always true.”
Stephens married twice, the second time to a woman she had known since childhood, and later moved to Michigan, where she would spend the majority of her career working in funeral homes. Her relationship with her wife of 20 years, Donna, was grounded in a strong friendship, she said. But as Stephens grew older, she started to grow distant, silently battling an identity crisis she still didn’t understand.
Finally, one night in 2009, Donna accused Stephens of cheating on her.
“She thought maybe there was another woman involved,” Stephens said. “There was another woman. She just didn’t realize it was the same person: me.”
Donna, who stood by Stephens’s side through her transition, encouraged Stephens to seek professional help. After seeing a therapist, Stephens said she learned there were others like her for the first time in her life.
But while it was a breakthrough, she stopped short of expressing herself at work — fearing the exact outcome that ultimately unfolded.
By the fall of 2012, her double life came to a head. On a brisk November day, she stood in her backyard for more than an hour, holding a gun to her chest.
“No matter how long I stood there, I couldn’t do it,” she said of the November 2012 suicide attempt. “I said, ‘There’s gotta be more than this. And whatever it takes, I’ve gotta do it.’ That’s when I decided I had to write the letter.
“It was something I had to do or else it was over for me.”
The owner of Harris Funeral Homes, Thomas Rost, was straightforward when asked to provide the specific reason for firing her: “Because he was no longer going to represent himself as a man. ... He wanted to dress like a woman,” he said, according to court documents.
Rost, who described himself as a deeply religious man, also said that calling Stephens by the name “Aimee” made him feel “uncomfortable,” because “he’s a man.” The grieving families, he said, “don’t need some type of a distraction” — referring to Stephens.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Harris Funeral Homes in 2014, arguing that the funeral home had engaged in sex discrimination against Stephens. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit agreed.
“It is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex,” the court reasoned. It added: “An employer cannot discriminate on the basis of transgender status without imposing its stereotypical notions of how sexual organs and gender identity ought to align.”
Counsel for the funeral home, which petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case, argues by contrast that the 6th Circuit sought to rewrite the law to equate sex discrimination with gender identity discrimination, even though Congress did not expressly include gender identity when drafting the law.
“Stopping sex discrimination is a good thing. I think everybody agrees on that. But redefining the meaning of sex to mean gender identity in federal law hurts that goal and creates big problems,” John Bursch, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group representing the funeral home, told The Post. “No. 1, it would undermine equal opportunities for women. And in addition, it jeopardizes bodily privacy rights of women.”
John Knight, an attorney with the ACLU, which intervened on Stephens’s behalf, said the organization disagrees with the funeral home’s “framing” of the case, describing its views on sex discrimination as too narrow and its expansion to issues such as bodily privacy rights as irrelevant. “There are different ways to see that this is sex discrimination,” he said. “What has happened here is Aimee Stephens’s employer fired her because she did not conform to his stereotypes about how someone he perceives as male should look and appear. ... There has been no court that says, ‘No, transgender people are excluded from these kinds of protections that everyone else has.’”
Since she was fired from Harris Funeral Homes nearly six years ago, Stephens said she and her wife, an administrative assistant for an automotive company, have been struggling financially.
She sent out dozens of applications to funeral homes all across the state of Michigan, and yet her 30 years of experience never seemed to be enough. Her name on her application was different from the one that appeared on her past employment records. On the few occasions she got called in for interviews, she never got called back. She and Donna had to sell their car, camper, and piano just to get by.
Stephens, who retired in 2014 after her kidneys failed, said the funeral home had offered her a severance package if she agreed not to sue. But Stephens refused.
“Money at that point was not important,” she said. “It was the principle. Nobody should be fired over something like that.”