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Michigan transgender woman prepares for U.S. Supreme Court: "Now's not the time to back down."

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in its first-ever case dealing with transgender rights.

The Michigan transgender woman at the center of it all will be there watching.

In 2013, Aimee Stephens told her employers at RG & GR Harris Funeral Home in Garden City that she would begin dressing and presenting herself as a woman at work. Harris had been working there as a funeral director for nearly seven years, as a man.

“I was basically living two lives,” Stephens says of her decision to come out as trangender. “I was Anthony at work, but as soon as I stepped out of there and got in my car, I was Aimee once again. And living two lives takes a toll on a person.”

Two weeks later, her boss fired her.

Stephens took her case to the ACLU of Michigan, and the ACLU referred her to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC filed suit on Stephens’ behalf.

Stephens lost her case at the U.S. District Court level, with Judge Sean Cox finding that while she had indeed been discriminated against because she was transgender, that discrimination concern was trumped by her employer’s sincerely-held religious beliefs. However, that ruling was overturned in the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court found that Stephens’ firing discriminated against her on the basis of sex, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

That issue—whether sex discrimination prohibitions protect LGBTQ people under federal civil rights law—is at the heart of Stephens’ case, says the ACLU of Michigan’s Jay Kaplan, one of Stephens’ attorneys.

“She was fired because she wasn’t going to comply with her employer’s notion of how somebody who had been assigned male, the male gender at birth, was supposed to identify, look and act at work,” Kaplan said. “Just about all the federal circuit courts of appeals have looked at the issue of a transgender person being terminated from their employment and has held that that constitutes sex discrimination, that it is a form of gender stereotyping.”

“If you look at the text of Title VII, it prohibits sex discrimination. The very nature of being transgender is a person who identifies differently from the sex that was assigned to them at birth. We think it’s pretty simple, putting this together.”

The Harris Funeral Home and the Trump Administration—which has reversed the Obama administration’s position that federal civil rights protections apply to transgender people—will argue that sex discrimination prohibitions do not cover Stephens or other LGBTQ people.

“I can’t overestimate how much is at stake here,” Kaplan said. “Because a negative ruling from the United States Supreme Court could take away all federal civil rights protections against discrimination for LGBT people."

Six years after her firing and initial complaint, Stephens now says she’s determined to see her landmark civil rights case through to the end.

“Never in a million years did I imagine myself in that position. But yet here we are,” said Stephens, who will be sitting in the front row as the court hears oral arguments on October 8. “And now’s not the time to back down.”

“Somebody’s got to stand up, for my rights, for everybody’s rights. And we’re not asking anything special. Just basic human rights, to be treated like everybody else.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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