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Aimee Stephens, Michigan transgender woman at heart of landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, dies

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Aimee Stephens, the Michigan woman at the center of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court civil rights case, died on Tuesday.

Stephens was fired from a Garden City funeral home when she publicly transitioned from male to female in 2013. The resulting legal case asked a fundamental question: do laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex apply to LGBTQ people?

Stephens was always something of a reluctant civil rights hero. She said she only wanted the same rights and protections for transgender people as everyone else.

“They would like to just erase us altogether, saying that we don’t exist. But we do exist,” Stephens told Michigan Radio’s Statesidein 2019. “We’ve always been here, and we always will be here, regardless of what they choose.”

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Stephens’ case last fall, but has yet to issue a decision. It was the first-ever transgender rights case to come before the court.

Just before those arguments took place in October 2019, Stephens told Michigan Radio that she “never in a million years” thought her lawsuit would become a crucial LGBTQ civil rights case.

“But yet here we are,” Stephens said. “And now’s not the time to back down.”

Stephens suffered from health problems, including kidney failure, for years. She died at her Metro Detroit home at age 59, leaving behind a wife and daughter.

“Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your kindness, generosity, and keeping my best friend and soulmate in your thoughts and prayers,” said Donna Stephens, Aimee’s wife, in a statement released by the ACLU of Michigan, which represented Aimee Stephens in her lawsuit.

“Aimee is an inspiration. 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.”

“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,” added Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project and a member of Aimee Stephens’ legal team.

“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, 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.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public 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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