Words By Gabriel Arkles, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union LGBT & HIV Project.
Editors Note: This article was written prior to The Supreme Court ruled on June 15th, 2020 that a civil rights law protects gay and transgender employees from workplace discrimination.
Aimee Stephens worked as a funeral director at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes. She was fired for being trans.
Donald Zarda, a skydiving instructor, and Gerald Lynn Bostock, a county child welfare services coordinator, were both fired for being gay.
Their employers all claimed that it was perfectly legal to fire them for those reasons, and took the issue all the way to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is now considering whether federal law protects Aimee, Don, and Gerald — and the entire LGBTQ community — from discrimination. I am one of the ACLU attorneys who represents Aimee Stephens.
Tragically, Don died before his case made it to the Supreme Court. The ACLU is co-counsel for his former partner Bill Moore and sister Melissa Zarda who have continued the case.
The Supreme Court heard the argument back in October, and now we are playing the waiting game. Every day, we check to see if the Court has issued its decision. The Court may do the right thing, affirming that LGBT people are not strangers to the law and should not be cast out from public life. Or, it could twist the law to strip our communities from legal protections many of us have counted on for decades. A loss won’t just be limited to the workplace. For transgender people, existing federal law has provided protections in health care, education, housing, and more.
When I spoke with Aimee before the argument, it was clear to me how much the loss of her job pained her. It wasn’t just the financial losses, although those were significant. She and her wife struggled to make ends meet and pay medical bills. They had to sell their truck and other possessions to make ends meet. But Aimee also saw her work as a calling. It meant a lot to her to be able to support grieving families. And by all reports, it meant a lot to those families to have her compassionate presence. Driving LGBTQ people from the workplace always harms not just us and our families, but also all the people who we could benefit through our work.
Like most transgender people, I have also experienced discrimination. Once, a prospective employer told me she thought I would be great for the job, but she was concerned about my gender — she said people might not feel “comfortable” around me. Another time, I called a doctor’s office to make an appointment to see if I had strep throat. When I said I was transgender, the receptionist asked me to wait a moment so she could talk with the doctor, then told me the doctor wouldn’t feel “comfortable” treating me.
It is true that some people don’t feel “comfortable” when others of us seem not to match their sex stereotypes—whether we are LGBTQ or not. But that sort of discomfort is never an acceptable excuse for discrimination, as the Supreme Court has said in past cases. If the Supreme Court says otherwise now, it will set a dangerous precedent for anyone who ever gets seen as the “wrong type” of woman, or “not enough” of a man.
And trans rights aren’t just on the line at the Supreme Court. A wave of anti-trans legislation has been introduced around the country. This legislation is being pushed by the very same group that argued against Aimee at the Supreme Court. In dozens of states, there are hundreds of bills that would limit transgender people’s access to health care, restrooms, and the ability to play high school sports. These measures would cost many trans youth their lives.
This is a coordinated attack on our existence. And if it is successful, the consequences will be severe.
But the power is not only in the hands of the Supreme Court or state legislatures. We all have the power to take action, and right now we need everyone to go all in to defend trans lives.
Visit aclu.org/transpeoplebelong to learn about the attacks on trans people and how you can fight back.
Make sure your state and local lawmakers know that your support transgender people, and make sure candidates for office know this as well.
Support trans-led organizations in your community. No matter what the Court does, the violence that impacts transgender people, particularly trans and non-binary people of color, immigrants, and people with disabilities, will continue. Our communities need grassroots support for our survival.
Politicians cannot erase us. I will continue to fight for the survival of my communities in the courts and on the streets. For your own sake, and for the sake of your transgender friends and family, I invite you to do the same.
Give Help Get Help
If you or someone you know is struggling with any of the topics covered in this magazine, there are plenty of organizations that are great resources of help. Remember that you are never alone. For further information, visit glaad.org/transgender/resources.
Transgender people in crisis should contact the following resources:
The Trevor Project's 24/7/365 Lifeline at 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386)
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860
Transgender Organizations for Advocacy
National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE)
Transgender Law Center (TLC)
Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC)
Trans People of Color Coalition (TPOCC)
Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC)
Black Trans Advocacy
Trans Latina Coalition
PFLAG's Transgender Ally campaign
The Task Force's Transgender Civil Rights Project
HRC's transgender resources
TransJustice at the Audre Lorde Project
Transgender Organizations for Legal Services
Transgender Law Center (TLC)
Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP)
Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF)
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) Transgender Rights Project
Transgender Organizations for Support (for families, trans youth, and educators)
Trans Youth Equality Federation
Trans Youth Family Allies (TYFA)
PFLAG Transgender Resources