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The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the first transgender civil rights case it has taken on. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“Somebody’s gotta do it.”

“I’ve found it a little overwhelming when I realized that I could in the history book,” Aimee Stephens told me Monday morning. I’d just asked her how she felt about bringing the first transgender rights case to the Supreme Court. “Somebody’s gotta do it and I’d be happy and satisfied to be that person.”

The court will hear oral arguments on Tuesday this week in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a case that will decide if transgender people are entitled to sex-based protections under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Stephens, the plaintiff in the case, was working as a funeral director and embalmer when she came out as a trans woman in 2013, informing her employer with a letter explaining why her transition was necessary for her quality of life. Shortly thereafter, she was fired. Stephens filed a complaint with the EEOC claiming she was discriminated against because of her sex.

However the nine cisgender Supreme Court justices decide the case will have a lasting effect on the lives of every trans person in the US. If Stephens gets a favorable decision from the conservative-leaning court, trans people will have explicit nondiscrimination protections under federal law for the first time in history. A loss would be a dramatic step back in the equal standing of trans people under the law.

The case revolves around the definition of sex discrimination. Several circuit courts have ruled that discrimination against a trans person is a violation of Title VII’s ban on sex stereotyping. In other words, trans people inherently violate society’s ideas for how to dress and behave according to their birth sex, so therefore firing a trans employee simply for being trans is based on stereotypes for what it means to be male or female.

While Stephens is not the first openly trans litigant to appear in front of the Supreme Court (Dee Farmer, a trans woman inmate from Wisconsin holds that distinction), her case will be the first to deal directly with the rights of transgender people in the US under the law. Even amid her faltering health after kidney failure several years ago, Stephens persists with her court case. I had a chance to sit down with Stephens the morning before her case was due to be heard by the high court.

She and I met in the lobby of her Washington, DC, hotel while her spouse Donna and an ACLU attorney sat nearby.

Katelyn Burns

Are you feeling good about your case?

Aimee Stephens

Yes. There’s been people that say, you know, “I hope we don’t lose,” or whatever, but the fact that we’re able to bring it forth and hear the case presented is a victory already. Regardless of whether it’s a favorable decision or not, we still have a lot of work to do. When this part’s over, we just work on the next issue, and work hard and keeping going.

I’m just ready for [tomorrow] to get here and hopefully the pressures ease off and we can finally take a rest. As everybody may or may not know, my health is not the best in the world, and today’s not the worst day I’ve ever had but it’s not the best day either. So we have to take that one day at a time and I think that’s got more to do with it than anything else.

Katelyn Burns

When you filed the EEOC complaint, did you ever expect to end up here in DC in front of the Supreme Court?

Aimee Stephens

No. It’s been enlightening. We’ve found that the wheels of justice turn slowly. But we’re hanging in there and at least now we can sort of see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Each side has a chance to speak and with it all being in writing, it takes a while to get all that filed and wait for responses.

Katelyn Burns

I’ve reported previously about your coming-out letter to your friends and family, and as a trans woman myself, I found a lot of commonality to it. One thing I was struck by was you were so conciliatory in your tone in that letter and it sounded like you were expecting at least some people in your life to not understand your reasoning for transitioning.

Aimee Stephens

Listening to other trans people especially in group therapy, they’ve recounted the losses that they had, and yes, I was afraid I might have some. I did have an aunt who basically disowned me, but she’s come back. It took her a while, I guess, to understand what’s going on, but in everything I chose life. To live. At one point I had considered ending it all and I’m happy with that decision, I’m happy being who I am.

Katelyn Burns

I’m sorry, you’re going to make me cry. I’ve been there myself. … So you were employed for quite a bit of time with the funeral home, did it feel like a betrayal when they let you go?

Aimee Stephens

It made me mad and that’s basically why I filed suit to begin with. I’d given quite a few years to them, I had good reviews, we got along good — then all of a sudden it’s, “We don’t need you anymore.” I got mad enough to do something about it.

Katelyn Burns:

You’re not the first trans litigant to appear in front of the Supreme Court but yours is the first case to deal with trans issues specifically. Having said that, I’m going to be in the courtroom tomorrow, I know that there’s going to be people in the gallery and I know there’s people on your legal team who are trans. Do you feel a sense of history in being the face of the first time these issues are heard in such a revered court in the country?

Aimee Stephens

I’ve found it a little overwhelming when I realized that I could in the history book, but somebody’s gotta do it and I’d be happy and satisfied to be that person.

Katelyn Burns

There’s been quite a bit of vocal support, certainly from within the trans community but even from people aren’t trans who just consider themselves allies. Do you feel that support when you are going through the tedious process of, as you said, the slow-moving gears of justice?

Aimee Stephens

Yes, more so in the last week. They had a send-off party last Tuesday at Affirmations (an LGBTQ support organization in Ferndale, Michigan ear where Stephens lives) and it was nice to see all the support from different people who are standing behind me. I guess that’s when it all kind of came to a head, that I realized that there were a lot of people that agreed with what we are doing. And of course in the last week, my Facebook messenger and Instagram has all gone crazy. I’ve gotten letters from all over the country in support.

One of them was from another Aimee and it kind of gives you a feeling of solidarity. She said, “From one Aimee to another.” I’ve been told that I’m courageous and that I’m a strong woman and lots of other things, and I hadn’t really seen myself in that way.

Katelyn Burns

Has it changed your self-perception?

Aimee Stephens

A little. Even last night I had a young lady who came up to me telling me that I was her idol and I was her role model and I expressed, “Well, do you want a picture?” And she went crazy. She was beside herself, almost to the point of jumping up and down. So it’s nice to be able to help people still.

Katelyn Burns

If there’s one thing that you could say to the [trans] community as we go into this week and eventually we get a decision in this case, what is it that you would say to them?

Aimee Stephens

Always strive to be who you are. Deep down you know who you are and don’t let anyone else tell you any different. Hold your head high and keep marching forward. It will get better.

Katelyn Burns

I think that there’s a sense within the community that your case will touch the rest of our lives [as trans people]. How does it feel to have that case?

Aimee Stephens

I don’t really look at it as pressure. I try not to worry about it. I have been saying it is what it is and you deal with it day by day. You hope for the best.

Author: Katelyn Burns

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