In a landmark decision Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people in the United States cannot be fired for being gay or transgender. The case had three different plaintiffs, Aimee Stephens, Don Zarda, and Gerald Bostock, all of whom were fired on the basis of their sexuality.
In SCOTUS’s ruling, they said, “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII,” which makes it “unlawful . . . for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
Title VII is also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was passed amid the civil rights movement to protect victims of discrimination.
Here is what you need to know about Aimee Stephens, Don Zarda & Gerald Bostock:
Aimee Stephens was Fired in 2013 When She Told Her Employer of 6 Years She Was Going to Transition to Live as a Woman
According to the SCOTUS opinion of the court document, Aimee Stephens worked at R. G. & G. R. Harris Funeral Homes in Garden City, Michigan. When she was hired around 2006, she was still living as a man. Two years into her time at the funeral home, she “began treatment for despair and loneliness,” according to the document.
Overtime, Stephens was diagnosed with gender dysphoria and her therapists recommended that she start living as a woman. It was four years later that she wrote a letter to her employer at the funeral home saying that she was going to fully transition to a female, including while she was working, and she would return from an upcoming vacation as a woman.
Before she left on the vacation, the Harris Funeral Home fired Stephens, saying, “this is not going to work out,” the document stated. She was fired in 2013.
The ACLU reported that Stephens was studying to become a Baptist minister when she discovered fulfillment in the funeral industry, “helping people remember their loved ones at peace and received positive feedback from her employer and coworkers.” Over three decades Stephens spent 20 years working in the industry, living her life as a man.
According to the ACLU, by the time Stephens was a 5-years-old, she felt like she was a girl.
After Stephens was fired in 2013 she went into kidney failure, and the loss of her job meant that the illness was a huge financial burden. After years of dialysis, it was clear that Stephens need to transition again, this time to hospice care.
A GoFundMe was started for Stephens toward the end of her life in 2019.
According to the GoFundMe page:
Being fired from her employer caused an immediate financial strain, leading her spouse Donna to take on several jobs. Friends and family have stepped in when they can, but years of lost income have taken a toll on their finances. Because of this, we are asking for assistance with Aimee’s future funeral costs and end-of-life care. This money will also be used to alleviate some of the financial burden Donna faces that comes with the loss of a loved one.
On May 12, 2020, Stephens died at the age of 59 after her years-long battle with kidney disease, according to NBC News.
Stephens is survived by a wife, Donna, and a daughter, Elizabeth.
Don Zarda Was Fired From his Job as a Skydiving Instructor After he Told a Female Customer He Was Gay to Make Her More Comfortable Being So Close to Him During a Tandem Jump
Donald Zarda worked as a skydiving instructor at Altitude Express in New York. He’d worked for “several seasons” with the company, according to the SCOTUS decision document, which says, “Mr. Zarda mentioned that he was gay and, days later, was fired.” That was in 2010.
Melissa Zarda, Don’s sister, wrote of his plight in Time in July 2019. Melissa said that her brother Don came out to his family as gay when he was in his twenties.
She said when he came out to the family, “I remember him looking at us expectantly after sharing the news, waiting for our reaction,” she wrote. “We were all more than ready to accept him for who he was.”
Melissa also wrote about Zarda getting fired due to his sexuality:
Don was living his dream as a skydiving instructor at Altitude Express out of Long Island, New York. He often did tandem jumps with new skydivers, in which they would be strapped together. On one, he offhandedly mentioned to a female student that he was gay in an effort to make her more comfortable with their close physical contact.
Melissa ended up deeply entrenched in the discrimination lawsuit because Zarda died on Oct. 3, 2014, in a base jumping accident at 44-years-old. Base jumping means jumping off of a fixed object like a cliff or glacier while wearing a parachute that is deployed on the way down. Melissa carried on with the lawsuit in her brother’s memory.
According to his obituary, Don Zarda, 44, died on Oct. 3, 2014, in Switzerland. He was an electrician and IT professional, but his passion was in skydiving and base jumping. His obit said, in part:
An experienced skydiver, Don excelled at every discipline of the sport. He helped thousands create memorable life experiences while serving as a licensed tandem master and skydive instructor at dropzones worldwide. An airplane pilot, he also dedicated his life to BASE jumping as a member of an elite group of wingsuit athletes. Don had a big smile and an even bigger personality. His spirit, enthusiasm, and infectious laughter electrified those around him. He enjoyed sharing his adventures with loved ones, and especially relished encouraging others to experience adventures of their own. An intelligent, generous, fun, and truly unique person, Don made friends across the globe. He will be sorely missed by his family, friends, and everyone in the BASE community.
Gerald Bostock was Fired From His Job as a Child Welfare Advocate After he Joined a Gay Softball League
According to the Supreme Court, Gerald Bostock worked as a child welfare advocate for Clayton County, Georgia, where “under his leadership, the county won national awards for its work.”
After about 10 years working for the county, Bostock joined a gay recreational softball league. SCOTUS wrote, “influential members of the community allegedly made disparaging comments about Mr. Bostock’s sexual orientation and participation in the league. Soon, he was fired for conduct ‘unbecoming’ a county employee.”
Bostock worked for the county from 2003 to 2013 when he was fired. In a video made by The Human Rights Campaign, Bostock said, “I absolutely loved my job. It was my dream job.” He said he advocated for child abuse and neglect victims.
Bostock said that, “one day I decided to join a gay recreational softball league, and from that moment forward my life changed. Because I was fired.”
Bostock said that when he was told his reason for termination was, “conduct unbecoming of a Clayton County employee” that he “knew immediately that it was because of my sexual orientation. It was the most difficult day of my life aside from my cancer diagnoses. I barely remember driving home. I lost my livelihood. I lost my medical insurance at a time I was recovering from prostate cancer.”
But Bostock says the issue wasn’t only about him getting fired for being gay. It was bigger than him.
“But what about the children right here today that identify as LGTBQ?,” he thought. “What kind of message did Clayton County send to those children? The message I hear is that their lives don’t matter. It’s no longer just about me. This is an issue of national importance. It impacts millions of people across this country.”
Bostock Stood Before the Justices on the Supreme Court to Argue to End Workplace Discrimination Against the LGTBQ Community
After years of moving through the court system, Bostock’s case was consolidated with Zarda’s case, and on April 22 the Supreme Court announced it would take up the three cases together to look at whether gay and transgendered people should get the protections afforded in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
On Oct. 8, 2019 the case was argued in the Supreme Court. The ACLU served as the council in two cases, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC (Aimee Stephens) and then Altitude Express v. Zarda (Donald Zarda). Bostock’s case was later incorporated into the Zarda case.
Bostock and with Stephens were both there that day.
Bostock said he believed in the U.S justice system and what the Supreme Court building stands for. He was optimistic that the justices would “make the right decision,” adding, “No one should go to work fearful of losing their job because of who they are, how they identify or who they love,” Bostock said.
The Supreme Court Justices Wrote That the Decision on Whether It Is Discriminatory to Fire Someone on the Basis of their Sexuality was ‘Clear’
According to SCOTUS’s opinion on the historic decision, while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may not have been written to include the LGTBQ community, “the limits of the drafters’ imaginations” are no reason to “ignore the law’s demands.” They wrote:
Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.
Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result. Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees. But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands.