Transgender woman at center of the Supreme Court case fighting for LGBTQ workplace rights has died at 59

Aimee Stephens, the lead plaintiff in the transgender rights case "R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission" sits in her wheelchair on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court after oral arguments in the case in Washington, U.S., October 8, 2019.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
  • Aimee Stephens, the transgender woman behind the US Supreme Court case fighting LGBTQ workplace discrimination, has died. She was 59.
  • Stephens served as a funeral home director in Michigan for six years before she was fired after her transition.
  • She sued the funeral home and won in a lower court. The owners then appealed to the US Supreme Court, which heard arguments for the case in October 2019. A ruling is expected in July.
  • The case was the first time the Supreme Court heard arguments for a civil rights case by a transgender person, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Aimee Stephens, the transgender woman at the center of the historic Supreme Court case concerning LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace, died on Tuesday at her home in Michigan. She was 59.

Stephens made history as the first transgender person whose civil rights case was heard by the Supreme Court, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. She worked as a funeral director for six years in Garden City, Michigan, but she was fired from her position after her transition in 2013.

"Aimee did not set out to be a hero and a trailblazer, but she is one," ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio said in a statement to CNN. "And our country owes her a debt of gratitude for her commitment to justice for all people and her dedication to our transgender community."Advertisement

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Prior to her transition, she wrote a letter to her coworkers relaying her decision to have gender reassignment surgery. "[T]he first step I must take is to live and work full-time as a woman," she wrote.

"I will return to work as my true self," she added, "in appropriate business attire."
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After she returned to her job, however, Thomas Rost, her boss at the time, refused to acknowledge Stephens' transition, telling her that "coming to work dressed as a woman was not going to be acceptable."

Stephens sued Rost saying she was terminated for being transgender — in violation of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Stephens' lawyer, ACLU National Legal Director David Coke, argued in court that "employees should be judged on their merit, not their sex."

A lower court ruled in favor of Stephens, but the funeral home's owners appealed to the US Supreme Court, arguing the civil rights law does not apply to transgender individuals.

Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department urged the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to inform the Supreme Court that, per its interpretation of the law, businesses can discriminate against transgender employees, Bloomberg reported.Advertisement

FILE PHOTO: LGBTQ activists and supporters rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in WashingtonReuters

The Obama administration previously held that the 1964 Civil Rights Act applies to LGBTQ persons.

Stephens was at the end stage of renal failure and ultimately died in hospice care at her home due to complications with kidney disease. Her wife, Donna Stephens, was at her side, CNN reported.Advertisement

Her death will not impact the legal case, which was heard by the high court in October. A ruling is expected in July, NPR reported.

"Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your kindness, generosity, and keeping my best friend and soulmate in your thoughts and prayers," Donna Stephens said in a statement.

"She has given so many hope for the future of equality for LGBTQ people in our country," Stephens wrote, "and she has rewritten history. The outpouring of love and support is our strength and inspiration now."Advertisement

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