On Monday morning, June 15, 2020, the US Supreme Court declared that federal law now protects LGBTQ workers from discrimination. The 6-3 opinion was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts. The decision came as quite a pleasant surprise for LGBTQ activists who have been working tirelessly on obtaining non-discrimination protections. For many of us, the flood of discrimination cases came as a result of marriage equality opponents not wanting to provide service to same-gender couples in their businesses; this exclusion extended to members of the transgender community as well.
No person devoted more to this particular cause than the woman at the center of the case, Aimee Australia Stephens. She did not live long enough to witness her triumph at the highest court in the land because Aimee died on May 12, 2020, at the age of fifty-nine, following a long illness. I was honored to attend a rally in her honor as she and her legal team were heading to Washington DC to argue her case. She told us that evening about how she had arrived at that moment. She had found the courage to begin to live her life no longer compartmentalized, but as the person she was born to be. In a letter written to the staff at the R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home Aimee wrote,
“I intend to have sex reassignment surgery. The first step I must take is to live and work full-time as a woman for one year. At the end of my vacation on August 26, 2013, I will return to work as my true self, Aimee Australia Stephens, in appropriate business attire.”
Her employer responded by terminating her position and offered her a severance package contingent upon Aimee agreeing to drop the matter. Instead, she contacted the Michigan ACLU for legal advice; the ACLU took her case, after several trials and appeals of decisions, all the way to the US Supreme Court. The case placed Aimee and her wife Donna in the center of a media storm as this was the first suit involving any transgender individual to make it to the High Court.
I spoke with Aimee following her rally and I asked how I could pray for her. She told me she that was tired, and she asked for strength. Deacon Michelle Fox-Phillips, Executive Director at Gender-Identity Network Alliance, and I offered Aimee and Donna our prayers and blessings.
I found Aimee to be a very humble and soft-spoken women, and I could only imagine the pressure she experienced with all eyes on her. After her day in court and her return to Michigan, Aimee’s health began to decline, and we continued to keep her and her legal case in our prayer. When her health worsened, Aimee’s attorney, Jay Kaplan of Michigan ACLU, reported that Aimee desperately wanted to see the outcome of the case. On one conference call with state-wide activists in Michigan, Kaplan noted that Aimee was paying a huge price in terms of her health. When no other funeral homes in Detroit would hire her after she was fired, she was not able to maintain her health insurance and was cruelly robbed of the medical care she so desperately needed.
This is why I call Aimee an “accidental activist.” She did not set out to open the door for all LGBTQ people to be protected from employment discrimination. But she did. All she wanted was to live her life in her authenticity and in peace. This is the courage and vision needed by all activists, yet some are never tested and tried in the ways Aimee was who paid a great price which yielded benefit for countless others. I like to think God heard and answered our prayers. Given the current majority of conservative justices seated on the High Bench today, many of us doubted that Aimee would prevail in her case. And, yet, all Americans received a tremendous blessing all because Aimee had the courage to fight for herself.
The LGBTQ community still has a distance to travel. We who are activists point out that
“Our nation has much to do to dismantle both legal and cultural systems of racism. While LGBTQ+ people now have legal protection from discrimination at work, we still have a long way to go to ensure that ‘We the People’ actually includes every person in this country.” [OutFront Minnesota]
Thank God for Aimee Stephens and her willingness to use her voice to change the world. May she Rest In Power and may we continue to be inspired and moved to action by her legacy.
Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow | Coordinator, The CLGS African American Roundtable