Aimee Stephens is the plaintiff in “R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. EEOC,” a case before the Supreme Court.
“With the support of my loving wife, I have decided to become the person that my mind already is. I cannot begin to describe the shame and suffering that I have lived with ... 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.”
That was the letter I gave to my boss and co-workers at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes. For me, it’s the reason I lost my job. But for other transgender people around the country, it is the basis of a landmark case that will be argued at the Supreme Court next term that could finally recognize that federal law protects us from discrimination in the workplace.
No one should face discrimination because of who they are. As difficult as being fired was for me and my family, that’s not why I decided to go to court. My case is about so much more than me — or even transgender people. It’s about anyone who has ever been told they are not enough of a man or not the right kind of a woman. It’s about anyone who has ever experienced sex discrimination. It’s about making sure the same thing doesn’t happen to someone else.
I worked in funeral services for nearly three decades. For me, it was a calling. I liked being able to help people and providing comfort to those who lost a loved one. Before I was fired, I felt valued at my job, not only because I got positive performance reviews but also because my co-workers trusted me to be funeral director for their own family members.
One of the first people I told that I’m a woman was a co-worker at the funeral home. She saw me wear woman’s clothing for Halloween one year and saw how comfortable I felt. After I shared my true self with her, I slowly began to do the same with other co-workers, who, like my family, accepted me for who I am. For this and for their friendship, I am very thankful.
Eventually, I made the decision to tell my boss. I suspected he would not accept me, so I worked through several drafts of my letter with my closest co-workers. After about 10 months, I was ready to present it. One day, I met my boss in the chapel of the funeral home, sat him down and gave him the letter.
My fears were correct. Instead of supporting me, he fired me and offered a severance package if I walked away without taking legal action. I went home, talked to my wife, Donna, and decided I couldn’t lie about who I am or remain silent about what happened to me. Instead of taking the severance, I contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and filed a complaint.
Donna and I knew this would hurt our ability to pay bills, so we sold our truck and other belongings. I struggled to pay for my weekly dialysis treatments and other health-care expenses. Even so, I am happier as my true self. If I had to do it all again, I would.
I had given almost six years of my life and expertise to the funeral home and worked with countless families in a time of grief. But the moment I said I needed to be authentic to who I am, my boss told me “We don't need you.” That was hard to understand. Moreover, it was wrong.
I continue to fight because I know so many transgender people face similar discrimination at work. They are fired from their jobs and denied promotions simply because of who they are. They are called names by co-workers, forced into unsafe restrooms and denied health insurance for necessary medical care. This is discrimination.
At the end of my letter, I told my co-workers that “life is an adventure, and I would like to believe that the best is yet to come.” I add to that now: I would like to believe that the United States — and the Supreme Court — will see that transgender people should be able to live free from discrimination in the workplace and beyond.