As It Happens

Aimee Stephens took LGBTQ rights to the U.S. Supreme Court, but never got to see her victory

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that workers can’t be fired for being gay or transgender. An ACLU lawyer who represented one of the workers, Aimee Stephens, tells us about her fight for transgender rights — and what the ruling's impact will be.

Stephens was a plaintiff in the historic court ruling entrenching the rights of LGBTQ people in the workplace

Aimee Stephens was one of the plaintiffs at the centre of a U.S. Supreme Court case that ultimately entrenched workplace protections for LGBTQ people. (Paul Sancya/The Associated Press)

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Aimee Stephens made history on Monday, but she wasn't there to see it happen. 

Stephens — who was fired from her job at a funeral home in 2013 after coming out as transgender — was one of three plaintiffs at the centre of Monday's historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling entrenching the rights of LGBTQ people in the workplace.

The country's top court ruled 6-3 that a federal law forbidding workplace discrimination on the basis of sex includes protections for gay and transgender employees.

But Stephens wasn't there to celebrate. She died in May due to complications from kidney failure. 

Chase Strangio, the deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU, represented Stephens in court. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Just how big a day is this for you and others in the LGBTQ community?

This is just an incredible moment to have a full comprehensive win, 6 to 3,  from the Supreme Court, making it explicitly and undeniably clear that LGBTQ people are protected under federal law from employment discrimination and by extension, from discrimination in a lot of other areas.

And it really comes on the heels of a ton of amazing organizing. Just yesterday, there was a rally of 15,000 people in Brooklyn rallying for Black trans lives.

And so I think the two things together, the sort of resistance in the streets [against] violence — state violence and interpersonal violence against Black trans people — and then this incredible victory at the Supreme Court are just a beautiful compliment to give us a lot of energy in this moment.

I was following your tweets and you had some real reservations as to whether this was going to happen, given that the Supreme Court has a conservative majority. 

From our perspective at the ACLU, it was a case that should appeal to a conservative court — a very straightforward textual interpretation of the law. 

Justice [Neil] Gorsuch has long been a jurist who has rejected the idea that we look to legislative intent at the time of enactment or the public meaning of words at the time of enactment in terms of what the intended consequences of the law should be. Instead, you look at the plain text of the law. 

And yet we know that the court doesn't always apply principle. We often see things were reverse-engineered to get an outcome that's based on politics. And in this case, we won and we got Justice [John] Roberts in addition to Justice Gorsuch, and so I am just really thrilled.

Stephens, seated, and her wife Donna Stephens, in pink, listen during a news conference outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Oct. 8, 2019. Chase Strangio, listening at right, is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Some of the things you've said may not make sense to Canadians who don't know about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [that] you're referring to when you say ... that you couldn't be discriminated [against] on the basis of sex. So maybe just in really simple terms, explain what this now says about both sexual orientation and gender identity.

What it means is that under our federal law covering the entire United States, that the protections that prohibit sex discrimination include protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status.

So the Supreme Court has, in effect, explicitly made clear that LGBTQ people are covered under workplace protections under federal law, which applies in all 50 states.

And that is an incredible victory because what had previously been true was that there were sort of a patchwork of lower court decisions interpreting the meaning of sex discrimination under federal law. 

I know she is probably looking down on us and smiling, and I hope she knows how much she changed the world. - Chace Strangio, lawyer, ACLU

You're representing Aimee Stephens, who did not get to see this day. She died just two months ago. Why did she decide to take on this fight? 

Aimee was, you know, a transgender woman who lived much of her life knowing who she was, being afraid to come out in many ways, probably because of the very fear of being fired, which is ultimately what came to pass.

But when she finally came to terms with who she is, when she informed her employer that she is trans and would be coming to work as her true self, she was immediately fired and she was heartbroken.

And not only was she heartbroken, she was materially compromised from her health to her financial well-being, and she had no recourse.

At the time, it was 2013. [Barack] Obama was president. The position of the federal government was really different then than it is now. And she filed the charge with the federal agency that enforces Title VII, which is this federal law that the court interpreted today. And it was actually the United States that brought the case on her behalf.

It wasn't until 2017 when Aimee realized and we realized that after the election it was very likely that the United States would switch positions.

She sort of found a second purpose in life as a trailblazer for the community. And when she saw that the advocacy she had done, that she had put her heart and soul in through the litigation, might be reversed by the election, she herself intervened and we represented her. And in the final years of her life, she created this rule that will impact generations to come.

In this Oct. 8, 2019, transgender woman Alison Gill from Maryland joins LGBTQ supporters in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Manuel Balce Cenata/The Associated Press)

If she could have been there with you today ... how do you think she would have reacted?

This was her life's mission at the end of her life. She tried so hard to hold on to see the decision. And I thought that we would lose and that would be the last thing that she saw. But instead, we won. She won. I wish she had lived to see that.

It would have meant so much to her — and not just for her, not just for her own case, but really for what it means for the community, because she really took on the mantle of the fight for the entire community. 

And that is a hard thing to do. It means reliving your trauma. It means putting yourself out there when you're exhausted. It means getting hate mail. It means just taking on all of the reactions of others, good or bad. And that is exhausting, especially when she was struggling because she had lost her job and all the consequences that flow from that. So, you know, I wish she had lived to see the incredible work and culmination of her work.

I know she is probably looking down on us and smiling, and I hope she knows how much she changed the world.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Katie Swoger. Edited for length and clarity.

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