Judges on the Supreme Court have agreed to review the case of Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman fired from her job as a funeral director in Michigan. It also agreed to review two other cases where people were fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation.
Aimee Stephens had worked in the funeral industry for almost 30 years before she was fired for being a transgender woman. Her boss admitted that his choice to fire Aimee had nothing to do with her job performance as a funeral director. He was happy with her work when he saw her as a man.
But he fired her because she gave him a letter — a letter she had agonized over for months — that shared she was truly a woman.
Relying on longstanding precedent, the court of appeals ruled in Aimee’s favor in her employment discrimination case. Now, the Supreme Court will decide whether that decision will stand.
When I tell people about this case, they often express disbelief. They do not understand how there could be any question over whether what Aimee’s former employer did was against the law. And they’re right.
When employers discriminate against employees for being transgender, they discriminate because of sex, which has been illegal since 1964. In 1977, a court recognized that state law prohibiting sex discrimination prohibited discrimination against transgender people.
Over the last two decades, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and every court of appeal to consider the question has reached that same conclusion about federal law. There should be no question.
The other side’s arguments should frighten anyone who cares about gender equity. They say that “sex” only means reproductive anatomy. Therefore, they argue, unless discrimination is based specifically on perceptions of reproductive anatomy, it is not discrimination because of sex. At the same time, they argue that at least some sex discrimination, like requiring workers they perceive as women to wear skirts and workers they perceive as men to wear pants, is fine, because it is based on “real” differences between men and women.
If the Court were to rule against Aimee, decades of law would be thrown into doubt. It would certainly affect trans people, a group already disproportionately poor and likely to experience discrimination.
But also, such a ruling would jeopardize protections for cisgender women, who might for the first time have to prove that an employer was motivated specifically by his perception of her reproductive anatomy, and that the discrimination she experienced was not justified by “real” differences between men and women. All people whose appearance or behavior does not match their employers’ sex stereotypes could also lose protection under federal law depending on how the Court ruled.
Fortunately, the plain language of the law contradicts these arguments. Congress has made all sex discrimination illegal in healthcare, housing, education, and employment. These laws apply to everyone, transgender or not.
What happened to Aimee was not just wrong, it was illegal. She and her wife Donna deserve to finally receive justice, and to be able to move on with their lives. This case is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to affirm that sex discrimination is against the law — period.