For three years, Aimee Stephens of Michigan has fought for her job, then her livelihood, and more recently two debilitating illnesses that are preventing her from holding down any job. The one thing in her life that has not given her any trouble, and remained constant throughout these difficult years, is that she knows who she is.
Aimee Stephens is a transgender woman.
“I’m still the same person. I just look a little different,” Stephens said in an exclusive phone interview with NBC OUT just hours after getting the most disappointing phone call of the year.
Earlier Thursday, Stephens, 55, was at her home northwest of Detroit, where she’s recovering from a month spent in the hospital following back surgery, and on dialysis for complete kidney failure, when that dreaded call came.
It was her attorneys at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who have been representing her since 2014, a year after she was fired from her job as a funeral director and embalmer.
“The EEOC called and told me, ‘It’s not good news.’ The judge had ruled against us.”
“I regret the judge's decision ... But I am still happy where I'm at in life.”
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Sean Cox in Detroit was a summary judgment for the R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home, which fired her in 2013, after she announced she was transitioning from male to female.
Stephens wrote a letter on July 31, 2013, telling her boss she would soon start to dress in appropriate women’s business attire at work. Two weeks later, Harris’ owner fired Stephens, telling her what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable.
”It's been rough,” Stephens told NBC OUT, in describing this ordeal since losing the job she held for six years. As for friends, “We've lost a few along the way. There are some I haven’t heard from in two years.”
Stephens did put her skills to work, however, landing a job at Sinai-Grace Hospital in Detroit as an autopsy assistant, or diener. She was accepted as her authentic self for the first time, and she said she never once regretted coming out, even after being fired.
“No, my transition at this point, as far as I’m concerned, is all said and done,” Stephens said. “I’m no longer thinking I can have my [gender confirmation] surgery at this point given my health and my financial situation. But I am who I am. I won’t change that. I’m just going to put one foot in front of the other.”
That’s ever so hard these days, she said, because of how her health has deteriorated, and the throbbing back pain that put her in the hospital twice this year.
“My health has gone downhill,” Stephens said. “I’m recovering from my second back surgery this year. I just spend one month in the hospital because my vertebrae are collapsing upon themselves.”
Since the surgery, she’s been pain-free, but there’s another complication. “I’ve had complete kidney failure,” she said, taking her time to express the frustration of this new challenge. “I’m on dialysis now.”
But standing by her is one person who has never failed Stephens and is not wavering now: her wife, Donna, who remained her spouse throughout the gender transition and the court battles.
“I’m still with my wife. We’re still married,” she said, just back home after going out to dinner with Donna. “I still have the support of my family.”
And since September 2014, she’s also had the support of the EEOC.
That’s when the commission made history in announcing that Stephens’ rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were violated, and filed a landmark lawsuit that marked the first time the EEOC as an agency of the federal government, sued a private business on behalf of a transgender American.
The EEOC argued that Stephens — and a Florida trans woman who had been fired for transitioning — lost their jobs for not conforming to their employers’ gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.
But the cases went in different directions. The Lakeland, Fla. eye clinic settled with Brandi Branson for $150,000.
Harris, however, went to trial, and the company’s attorneys went on the attack. They tried to force Stephens to reveal to the court what her lawyer called “intimate and private” information: whether she still has a penis, her family medical history and information about her previous sexual relationships.
The judge squashed those attempts. Twice.
But in the end, Judge Cox tossed out Stephens’ suit, ruling the funeral home met its burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII “would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs.” He concluded the funeral home is entitled to a religious exemption.
Cox cited the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling of 2014, which decided for-profit businesses were exempt from certain laws if owners had a religious objection. And Cox blasted the EEOC for not challenging the funeral home’s gender-specific dress code requiring female employees to wear a “skirt-suit” and men to wear a “pants-suit with a neck tie.”
“If the compelling interest is truly in eliminating gender stereotypes, the court fails to see why the EEOC couldn’t propose a gender-neutral dress code as a reasonable accommodation that would be a less restrictive means of furthering that goal under the facts presented here,” Cox wrote.
Attorney Jillian Weiss, Executive Director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and the lawyer who represented the plaintiff in the eye clinic case, criticized that premise and lamented what might happen if the ruling were to stand.
“In ruling that an employer can force its employee to wear ‘gender neutral’ clothing because of the employers' religious beliefs, the federal court has ignored both Supreme Court and appeals court rulings that correctly understand gender discrimination to be as illegal as sex discrimination. It would be sad indeed if we are to go back to the days in which people could be forced to conform to outmoded masculine and feminine stereotypes in order to keep their jobs.”
“This case wasn’t about gender identity,” Harris’s attorney Douglas Wardlow told reporters following the ruling. “It was about the owner’s religious belief that sex is a immutable and God-given gift.”
“I regret the judge's decision,” Stephens told NBC OUT. “But I am still happy where I'm at in life.”
Although the commission told reporters it was considering its options following the ruling, Stephens said it’s been decided. “They already said they were going to appeal,” she said. However, since her lead attorney was out of town when the decision was handed down, Stephens said she’s expecting a call next Tuesday to confirm the EEOC will in fact challenge the ruling.
Stephens was surprisingly resigned about the fate of the case, saying she would abide by whatever decision the EEOC made, whether to accept the ruling or fight on. Given the surprising decision by Judge Cox to rely on religious freedom, does she now think she cannot win?
“In the light of the current political situation, I don't see it happening any time soon,” Stephens said.
“It’s not so much about the presidential race, but much more about the Congress that gets elected; how far they’ll go to overturn what’s been achieved so far.”
When asked what her political affiliation is, Stephens doesn’t hesitate. “Liberal Democrat,” she boasted.
Stephens acknowledged Thursday’s decision could have a wide impact on transgender Americans beyond Michigan, but that it’s not for her to offer advice to anyone who might think twice about coming out given the chance they could lose their job.
“That’s gotta be a personal choice on their part,” she counseled. “There are a lot of different ways to look at it, and no two people transition the same way. If an individual can’t go through with it, they have to find a way to live with it. But ... that can be dangerous proposition.”
Dawn Ennis is an award-winning journalist and was the first to transition in a network TV newsroom. She is now a freelance writer, producer and editor, as well as a widow, a single parent of three children, and the subject of an award-winning documentary, "Before Dawn/After Don." Ennis is also on YouTube, on Twitter and blogging atlifeafterdawn.com.