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    We Love You, Aimee Stephens!

    By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney–

    “Aimee, Aimee, Aimee! We love you! We love you! We love you!” That’s what Aimee Stephens, plaintiff in the historic transgender rights case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, heard thousands of her supporters chant as she emerged from the Supreme Court last October after oral argument in her case. 

    We sense that Stephens may not have fully received that message of love ever before in her life. Stephens had known she was a girl since age 5, but wasn’t able to live in accord with her true self until nearly 50 years later. In an ACLU video she explained, “I’m fighting for my rights and the rights of others to be who we are. I did not realize that there [were] that many people in support, but to hear them outside [on] the courthouse steps chanting my name, telling me that they loved me—that had a big effect on [me].”

    Tragically, Stephens passed away from kidney failure last week before she could learn whether her vision of transgender equality would become reality.

    Among those showering Stephens with love that day was a supporter holding a sign that read, “We are all Aimee Stephens.” The sign’s simple declaration attested to the fact that Stephens was standing up for the civil rights of over 1.5 million transgender Americans and countless intersex and gender non-binary people. The sign also articulated Stephen’s message and the core, universal value of the entire LGBTIQ movement: Our common humanity, our common desire to love and be loved, our common aspiration to be free to be our true selves, and our common need for equality under the law.

    As Stephens had put it in a Detroit News interview: “If you’re part of the human race, which we all are, we all deserve the same basic rights.” In an ACLU video, Stephens’ wife Donna observed, “Everybody wants to be their true self.” 

    And couldn’t we all benefit from experiencing more love the way Stephens did on the steps of the Supreme Court—not in a narcissistic way, but in a sustaining sense of safety, wellbeing and happiness within?

    As a young adult training to become a pastor, Stephens found herself drawn to comforting families mourning the death of loved ones and ended up having a nearly 30-year career working in funeral services. She was known for her “sensitivity and compassion” for grieving clients.

    However, even as Stephens comforted others in crisis, she struggled with inner turmoil because she had been unable to live in accord with her true gender identity. She fell into “despair, loneliness, and shame.” After several years of psychotherapy, she decided to live her life fully in accord with her true gender. In 2013,  she penned an extremely forthcoming, caring, and reassuring letter to her friends and work colleagues, explaining that she had struggled with gender dysphoria her “entire life” and that finally for her “peace of mind and to end the agony in [her] soul” she was going to live as her “true self.” 

    Two weeks after Stephens gave the letter to her boss, he fired her, declaring it was “wrong for a biological male to deny his sex by dressing as a woman.”

    Stephens stood up for herself, and her case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, representing the hope of millions of transgender people to be their “true selves” in the workplace. 

    As Stephens advocated for transgender rights through her lawsuit, few of us knew she was battling kidney disease and needed frequent dialysis. When Stephens’ employer fired her, she not only lost her income but also her health insurance.

    After being fired for being transgender, Stephens found looking for other work in the funeral services industry difficult, and her wife Donna was forced to take on several jobs to make ends meet, depriving them of precious time together. We can only imagine the deleterious effect these additional stresses, coupled with decades of transphobia, had on Stephens’ health. In late April, Stephens’ kidneys failed and she entered hospice care. 

    In the ACLU video, Stephens says: “The more I’ve seen the support, it gives me the strength to get up another day, to go on fighting another day and give that same hope to all the rest.” Whether “you win or lose, the wheel still keeps turning—whether it be for you or not.” Thank you, Aimee, for turning that wheel and emanating love for all of us.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    Published on May 20, 2020