The case of Aimee Stephens, one of the three workers who were fired just because of their LGBTQ identity, is deeply personal to me. Like Aimee, I am transgender. And in the five months since the court agreed to hear R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. EEOC, I have lived and breathed this case.
Tuesday may feature the first time the word “transgender” is spoken during oral arguments in the highest court in the United States. And when the justices look out from the bench and see my co-counsel and me at counsel table, it may be the first time they have looked at transgender attorneys defending our own existence before their powerful bench.
This seems fitting: It always takes a village to litigate a case before the Supreme Court. But a civil rights case with such historic proportions takes more than that; it takes a movement of people who have built the very infrastructure that allows us to defend our existence before the highest and most powerful legal body in the country.
Like many transgender people, Aimee struggled to come to terms with the truth of who she is and ultimately sought support from medical and mental-health providers. After years of trying to please those around her and repress who she is, she found the courage to inform her employer in a letter that she is a woman and would be coming to work as her true self. Upon receiving that letter, her employer fired her. That was over six years ago, and now her case is before the highest court.
My heart sank when the court agreed to hear the case in April. We had won in the court below, so the Supreme Court’s review meant the victory was at risk and so, too, were the legal protections that trans people have relied on for decades — protections that have secured our rights not just in employment but also in health care, housing, education and credit.
As someone who has relied on those protections both personally and as an advocate, I appreciated the magnitude of what was at stake and was driven by both a sense of urgency and mission. The night before the order came down from the Supreme Court, I had watched “On The Basis of Sex,” the film about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early work as an advocate building protections under the law “on the basis of sex.” It felt timely. Here we were, decades later, about to defend the legacy of her work before the court where she now sits.
The employers and the Trump administration have defended the firing of LGBTQ people by raising specious arguments about what it would mean to include us in the workplace and in public life. Particularly with respect to transgender people, Aimee’s former employer’s briefing goes so far at times to suggest that it is dangerous to let us be who we are — that somehow firing us is for our own good.
Is that what the justices will think when they look out from the bench and see a courtroom full of transgender people, including many attorney members of the Supreme Court bar? That it would be better if we were forced to live in our assigned sex — something many of us tried to do and only surrendered to our truth because the alternative was too dark and painful? Will they see me sitting before them and recognize that my confidence and my power come from my ability to live as who I am, to go to school, to get my law degree, to pursue my career as a transgender person without facing punishment and retribution?
Transgender people can live only if we can be who we are — that is, our existence depends on our ability to live consistent with the sex with which we identify. Our physical presence in court is a testament to that truth. When the justices see us sitting before them, they will have to contend with the reality that we have declared our truth and are not going back.