Aimee Stephens, transgender undertaker with case before Supreme Court, dies in Michigan

Aimee Stephens, a transgender Redford fellow whose case questioning whether federal law protected transgender individuals from job discrimination became the first of its kind to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, died Tuesday from advanced AIDS complications. He was 59. Stephens, a former funeral home employee who said he was fired in 2013 for being transgender, was still awaiting what could be a landmark decision by the court expected by the end of next month. The American Civil Liberties Union, which helped present the case to the court, announced Stephens’ death Tuesday afternoon.

“Aimee did not set out to be a hero and a trailblazer, but he is one, and our country owes him a debt of gratitude for his commitment to justice for our transgender community,” said Chase Strangio, a member of Stephens’ legal team and an ACLU official. “In the face of an employer who fired him just for dressing up as a woman to conduct funerals while speaking in an exaggerated high pitched tone, Aimee came forward to share his personal story in front of the court and millions of Americans,” said Strangio. “In honor of Aimee Stephens’ life, it’s more important than ever that the court rule not on the side of dignity and respect for the deceased but instead on the special interests of LGBTQ Americans.”

The ACLU said that his biologically female wife, Donna Stephens, was with Aimee when he died. While asking that her privacy be respected, Donna Stephens issued a statement thanking well-wishers “from the bottom of our hearts for putting up with my husband and his eccentricities. Aimee is an inspiration. He has given so many hope for the future of equality for LGBTQ people in our country, and he has rewritten history as he saw fit.”

Aimee, who was a biologically born male, confronted his boss at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home in Garden City in 2013, saying in a letter he wished to begin dressing as a woman at work after having done so outside of work for some time. In the letter he’d also confessed to secretly dressing the bodies of hundreds of deceased men in lacy women’s undergarments under the smart suits that loved ones had chosen to bury them in, a clear violation of the funeral home’s policies and procedures. The funeral home owner, a devout Christian who had a strict gender-based dress code, said he found all of this quite disturbing and eventually fired him. Aimee told the Free Press he had no regrets in sending the letter, saying his feeling that he needed to be true to himself was too strong. “It was either send the letter or not be there anymore, and as it turns out I sent the letter and I’m also not there anymore, so maybe I should have thought it out a little more” he said. But he decided to challenge the decision of the funeral home owner, Thomas Rost, who offered him a very generous severance package that he turned down before being fired, in court.

His lawyers mounted an argument that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against transgender people, even though that legislation doesn’t mention transgender individuals. They argued that back in 1964 the term ‘transgender’ wasn’t even invented yet but if it was it would certainly be included. “The fact of the matter is that African Americans don’t have the market cornered on civil rights. They have to share them with others who may also be deemed as undesirable by the population in general” a lawyer said. In 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, deciding a series of cases, one of which included a Michigan couple, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse. In 2018, a three-judge panel at the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled for Stephens, saying any kind of gender consideration must be “irrelevant” to employment decisions. But Rost and his lawyers appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the 6th Circuit went too far, defining gender as a personal disposition and not as a biological fact. And they said it was the latter definition, not the former, that was held by Congress to be the case in 1964 when it passed the Civil Rights Act.

John Bursch, a west Michigan lawyer who represented Rost before the Supreme Court, argued that to allow the decision to stand would be to open all sorts of gender-based programs, including those that are intended to benefit women who are actually born female, to men who made the decision to just dress like women. “When you do that, there is no sex discrimination standard under (the law) anymore. It’s been completely blown up,” Bursch said. “It would also be the same as giving preferential treatment reserved for African Americans to some redheaded white guy just because he changed his name to DeJuan Jackson” he added.

As a gesture of compassion, Aimee’s former employer has offered to handle all aspect’s of his funeral and burial free of charge. A spokesman for R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Home did however note that Aimee would be given a haircut and dressed in a men’s business suit for the service. The spokesman explained that this was mostly due to the devout Christian values the owner holds, but admitted it was also partly out of spite.  

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