She came out as transgender and got fired. Now her case might become a test for LGBTQ rights before the US Supreme Court.

Aimee Stephens, right, and her wife Donna Stephens

Story highlights

  • Civil rights advocates fear that a Supreme Court with Brett Kavanaugh might be hostile to employee discrimination claims from gender-nonconforming people.

(CNN)In the summer of 2013, Aimee Stephens sent her employer a letter explaining she was about to change her life. She was a transgender woman, and she intended to start dressing as such at work.

She never expected then that she was about to enter into a yearslong legal dispute, one that might soon become a litmus test for lesbian, gay and transgender rights before the next US Supreme Court.
Stephens had spent months drafting the message to management at R&G and G&R Harris Funeral Homes, a family-owned business in the Detroit area, she says. She was 52 years old at the time, and she had spent her entire life fighting the knowledge she was a transgender woman, to the point that she had considered ending her life.
    Now that she was coming out at work, she hoped her nearly six years of positive performance reviews, which had earned her regular raises, would count in her favor.
    But her boss, a devout Christian, told her the situation was "not going to work out," according to court documents. Thomas Rost offered her a severance package when she was fired, but she declined to accept it.
    She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued the funeral home. The agency accused the funeral home of firing Stephens for being transgender and for her refusal to conform to sex-based stereotypes.
    A district court agreed with the funeral home that the federal workplace discrimination law known as Title VII did not protect transgender people. But it found that the funeral home did discriminate against Stephens for her refusal to conform to its "preferences, expectations, or stereotypes" for women. The EEOC appealed.
    The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Stephens and the EEOC in March. The funeral home's lawyers accused the court of exceeding its authority by expanding the definition of sex in a way that threatens to "shift" what it means to be a man or a woman.
    In July, lawyers representing the funeral home asked the Supreme Court to take up the case to determine if transgender individuals are protected under Title VII's sex-based provisions. If the court takes up the case, it could have broader implications for the definition of sex-based discrimination. And it could impact case law that precludes firing anyone -- gay, straight or cisgender -- for not adhering to sex-based stereotypes.
    "The stakes don't get much higher than being able to keep your job," said Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality. "Harris Funeral Homes is a stark example of the job discrimination that so many transgender people face."
    Advocates say it's one of the most important current civil rights issues for the transgender community, along with similar considerations in education and health care. And they say it has been settled by years of case law. In the past two decades, numerous federal courts have ruled that federal sex discrimination laws apply to transgender and gender-nonconforming people, including Title VII, the Title IX education law, and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act.
    But lawyers from the Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative Christian nonprofit representing the funeral home, say it's far from settled.
    "No court or federal agency has the authority to rewrite a federal statute. That power belongs solely to Congress. Replacing 'sex' with 'gender identity,' as the 6th Circuit and the EEOC have done, is a dramatic change," senior counsel Jim Campbell said in a statement.
    "What it means to be male or female shifts from a biological reality based in anatomy and physiology to a subjective perception. Far-reaching consequences accompany such a transformation."

    'Like a punch in the gut'

    The case is one of several that could go before the high court raising the question of whether sex includes gender identity for the purpose of Title VII. The question is coming up more often as the transgender community grows more visible, especially in the workplace.
    "The most common context in which you see some kind of discrimination is in the workplace," University of Texas professor law and CNN legal analyst Stephen Vladeck said. "This is the context in which there are the most claims that would rise or fall on whether gender identity is equivalent to sex."
    Donna Stephens, left, with Aimee Stephens, who has suffered health problems in recent years.
    Now 57, Stephens began working in a funeral home in her 20s, preparing bodies for viewing, helping present the deceased in their best light. It was a way for her to bring a measure of comfort to people in their times of greatest need, she said.
    She moved to Michigan nearly 20 years ago to be with her wife, and returned to the funeral home industry. She joined Harris Funeral Homes as an apprentice in October 2007 and served as a funeral director/embalmer from April 2008 until her termination in August 2013.
    She enjoyed her work, but she struggled with her identity, she says. One day in November 2012, she went out to the backyard of her Redford home with a loaded gun.
    "I couldn't see myself going backward or forward," she said. "I buried it as deep as I could for my whole life, but it doesn't stay buried."
    Then, she realized she loved herself and her life too much to give up, and went back inside the house, she says.
    Her wife, Donna Stephens, says she had noticed a change over time in her spouse. She thought it was depression, or worse, an affair. "When she came out and she told me, it was honestly sort of a relief," she said. "But it was very upsetting to find out the truth of what could have happened."
    Stephens had started seeing a counselor who recommended she write the letter for her workplace. She began working on it in early 2013, and hand-delivered it to her co-workers and boss on July 21, 2013.
    "I always knew there was a chance they would go off the deep end, but I was really hoping they would be more tolerant of my decision," she said. "Losing my job was like a punch in the gut."
    Donna Stephens took on extra jobs after her wife was fired.
    Stephens' health began to decline due to kidney failure and she could no longer work. Money became tight and Donna Stephens had to take on extra jobs while she grappled with her spouse's transition. They sold their van, their camper and a piano to make ends meet. A close call with death in fall 2017 renewed her resolve to speak publicly about the case in between appointments with doctors and dialysis sessions.
    She's still determined to see her case through. "What they