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Will the Supreme Court Protect People Like Me?

Julie Nemeck

Rev. Dr. Julie Nemecek, a retired pastor, hopes the younger trans generation will never experience what she did.

In October the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in three cases related to anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination, including one brought by Aimee Stephens, a woman who was fired after her employer learned that she is transgender and planned to transition, to live every day as the woman she has known herself to be. The cases are now under consideration by the Court.

Aimee Stephens has spoken out about how she felt demoralized after facing discrimination because of who she is, her career derailed and confidence shaken.

I know how she feels. I was also fired because I am transgender.

For many years I worked at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. In 2005, shortly after meeting with doctors and beginning to understand that I am transgender, I shared that diagnosis with my supervisor.

Within days, everything changed: Before sharing my transgender status I was treated with respect and celebrated for my work. After my disclosure, the university treated me as a delinquent employee. My salary was cut by 20 percent. I was forbidden from discussing my transition with anyone connected to Spring Arbor - which at the time included my brother, sister-in-law, and one of my children. My presence on campus was restricted. Eventually, I lost my job entirely.

I learned quickly that there was not much I could do to combat this mistreatment. I entered into mediation with the university, but Michigan's lack of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections left me vulnerable. Michigan is one of a majority of states where LGBTQ people do not have express and enduring nondiscrimination protections in areas like employment, housing, and access to public spaces. That's why we've been working so hard to pass comprehensive, protections in Michigan - and across the country.

Ultimately, I filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, making a similar argument that Aimee Stephens is making to the U S Supreme Court: Employment discrimination based on transgender status is the same thing as employment discrimination based on "sex" - and that's prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I am a transgender person. I always have been, including throughout all of the time I worked with Spring Arbor University. The university was fine with employing me when I presented as a man, but when I shared my authentic self and transitioned to live as a woman, I was pushed out of my job. That's discrimination based on sex.

Over the past decade a growing legal consensus from courts and federal agencies, including the EEOC, has solidified that Title VII protects LGBTQ people. Court after court has ruled this way, including the federal appellate court that encompasses Michigan. Now the U.S. Supreme Court will resolve the issue, and the ruling will have a big impact on LGBTQ workers nationwide.

Aimee Stephens is a woman who wants to work hard, find purpose, enjoy her life, and provide for her family. Her story speaks for so many people whose lives have been disrupted by the scourge of discrimination, including me. I am grateful to her for standing up for what's right.

During my struggle with anti-transgender employment discrimination, my wife and I derived great strength and peace from our faith and devotion to God. Before my transition, I was a Baptist minister, preaching to congregations in Michigan and beyond. My faith remains strong and we are active in our new church home in Grand Rapids.

As the Supreme Court justices deliberate over the issue of LGBTQ employment discrimination, I again turn to my faith for strength and peace. I hope that the justices internalize the immense gravity of their decision in these landmark cases. It's vital that the court affirm protections for LGBTQ people - and even after they do, it's vital that LGBTQ people and our allies sustain the hard work until LGBTQ people achieve federal nondiscrimination protections in all spheres of life at the state and federal level.

There is no Christian justification - no justification at all - for discriminating against someone because of who they are or who they love.

Julie Nemecek is a retired pastor and university professor. She is an outspoken activist for diversity and equality issues and resides in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Julie Nemecek