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'A Hero and a Trailblazer': Aimee Stephens, Plaintiff in Historic Trans Rights Supreme Court Case, Dies at 59

"Our country owes her a debt of gratitude for her commitment to justice for all people and her dedication to our transgender community."

Aimee Stephens, seen here in a wheelchair outside the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2019, died Tuesday.

Aimee Stephens, seen here in a wheelchair outside the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2019, died Tuesday. (Photo: Allison Shelley / ACLU)

Advocates for LGBTQ rights and those who knew her are mourning the loss of Aimee Stephens, a plaintiff in the first ever and still pending U.S. Supreme Court case about the civil rights of transgender people, who died in her home outside Detroit on Tuesday at the age of 59.

"Aimee did not set out to be a hero and a trailblazer, but she is one, and our country owes her a debt of gratitude for her commitment to justice for all people and her dedication to our transgender community," Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice with the ACLU's LGBT & HIV Project, said in a statement.

The Supreme Court heard arguments for Stephens' historic case and two other related discrimination cases in October 2019. The court's decision, expected in the coming weeks, could be groundbreaking in terms of affirming LGBTQ rights in the workplace and beyond, which are under attack from the Trump administration.

Stephens, a transgender woman, told The Detroit News last year she did not expect her case to reach the nation's highest court but she was optimistic about the outcome.

"I believe in what I'm doing. I've stood up for myself to make sure that it happens. That's what keeps me going," she said. "If you're part of the human race, which we all are, we all deserve the same basic rights. We're not asking for anything special. We're just asking to be treated like other people are."

Both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals previously determined that RG & GR Harris Funeral Homes in Michigan violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by firing Stephens in 2013 after she told her employer that she would be living her life as a woman at work.

"When Aimee decided to fight back after she was fired for being transgender, she just wanted it to be acknowledged that what happened to her was wrong," said Strangio. "Being a part of Aimee's team at the Supreme Court has been one of the proudest moments of my life because of the amazing person behind the case."

"As a member of her legal team, I am deeply sad for this loss. As a transgender person and an advocate," he added, "I am filled with both grief and rage that we have lost an elder far too soon. As we, and millions, carry her work for justice forward, may she rest in power and continue to guide us on this path."

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The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) detailed Stephens' case and honored her legacy in a blog post Tuesday. The group wrote in part:

In the midst of her historic court case, Aimee once said that being fired simply for being who she was the moment it finally hit home that trans people weren't treated the same as everybody else and decided it was time that somebody stood up and said enough is enough. We are so grateful that Aimee was the one to step forward and put herself in the spotlight to fight for justice for our community.

NCTE vowed to "continue to work to achieve equality for transgender people across the country in her honor," and declared that Stephens' efforts "will be remembered for generations and will inspire countless people to take up their own fight for equality and justice for all."

"Aimee Stephens is a hero in the fight for equal rights for all people," NCTE executive director Mara Keisling said in a statement. "Aimee was deeply committed to justice and fairness, and an incredible person. She has left us too soon. We send our deepest sympathies to Aimee's wife, Donna, and to all her friends, families, and supporters."

The New York Times reported:

Ms. Stephens was born on Dec. 7, 1960, in Fayetteville, N.C. She graduated from Mars Hill University in 1984 with a degree in religious education and obtained a degree in mortuary science from Fayetteville Technical Community College in 1988, according to the ACLU. She started working at RG & GR Harris in 2008.

Ms. Stephens's survivors include her wife, Donna Stephens, and the couple's daughter, Elizabeth.

Stephens struggled with kidney disease the past several years. According to a GoFundMe fundraising initiative set up last week by her brother-in-law John Pedit to help cover funeral costs and end-of-life care, Aimee Stephens recently discontinued dialysis and was under hospice care in the Michigan home she shared with her wife.

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

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

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