Aimee Stephens, whose potentially groundbreaking case before the Supreme Court could have major implications for the fight for civil rights for transgender people, died Tuesday at her home in Michigan. She was 59.
She died from complications related to kidney failure, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Stephens.
Stephens had been on dialysis for some time and entered hospice care Monday, according to the ACLU.
Donna Stephens, Aimee Stephens’ wife, thanked supporters in a statement “from the bottom of our hearts for your kindness, generosity, and keeping my best friend and soul mate in your thoughts and prayers.”
Aimee Stephens, a former funeral director, was fired from her job in 2013 after she announced to her colleagues in a letter that she would begin living as a woman.
“What I must tell you is very difficult for me and is taking all the courage I can muster,” she wrote. “I have felt imprisoned in a body that does not match my mind, and this has caused me great despair and loneliness.
“I will return to work as my true self, Aimee Australia Stephens, in appropriate business attire,” the letter continued. “I hope we can continue my work at R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes doing what I always have, which is my best!”
Two weeks after receiving the letter, though, the funeral home’s owner, Thomas Rost, fired Stephens. Asked for the “specific reason that you terminated Stephens,” Rost said: “Well, because he was no longer going to represent himself as a man. He wanted to dress as a woman.”
The case went to court, and Stephens won in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati. The case, which is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, is one of three that are expected to provide the first indications of how the court’s new conservative majority will approach LGBT rights.
The National Center for Transgender Equality said it expected a decision from the court “perhaps as soon as Thursday.”
Mara Keisling, the center’s executive director, called Stephens “a hero in the fight for equal rights for all people.”
“Aimee was fired for being transgender, and she chose to stand up for herself and for all transgender people,” she said, noting that “Aimee was deeply committed to justice and fairness, and an incredible person.”
In addition to her wife, Stephens’ survivors include the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth.
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Stephens “will be remembered as a trailblazer.”
“All of us in the LGBTQ community owe her immense gratitude for her bravery in standing up for the right of LGBTQ people to live as ourselves at work and in every aspect of our lives,” he said in a statement, adding that Stephens “will always be a hero to transgender and nonbinary people and to the entire LGBTQ community.”