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Paying tribute to the three LGBT+ heroes who suffered horrendous discrimination and fought for equality all the way to the Supreme Court

Nick Duffy June 15, 2020
Donald Zarda, Aimee Stephens and Gerald Bostock (L-R) have helped secure LGBT+ rights for millions

Donald Zarda, Aimee Stephens and Gerald Bostock (L-R) have helped secure LGBT+ rights for millions

Tributes have been paid to Aimee Stephens, Gerald Bostock and Donald Zarda – the three LGBT+ plaintiffs whose combined discrimination cases led to the US Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in favour of equality.

In a landmark 6-3 ruling on Monday, the court affirmed that LGBT+ people are entitled to protection from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity under existing sex-based discrimination laws.

Campaigners have paid tribute to the three heroic plaintiffs in the case, who all faced discrimination for being LGBT+.

Lead plaintiff Gerald Bostock was employed as a child welfare worker in Clayton County, Georgia, when he was fired for being gay.

Aimee Stephens, who passed away a month ago, was fired from the Michigan funeral home she worked at for six years after coming out as transgender.

Donald Zarda, who was fired from his job as a New York skydiving instructor because of his sexuality. He died in 2014.

Aimee Stephens waged a long campaign for justice after getting fired for being trans.

Aimee Stephens is the only trans plaintiff alongside Gerald Bostock and Donald Zarda. She worked for six years at Michigan’s R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes – but was fired when she came out as trans in 2013.

When Stephens complained to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the treatment, her former employer opted to fight the issue through the courts – arguing that it is not illegal to discriminate against transgender people.

The funeral home’s owner Thomas Rost was provided free legal representation by evangelical law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, arguing that his actions were justified because he “sincerely believes that the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift”.

The ugly fight dragged on for seven years, with the funeral home appealing an earlier ruling in favour of Stephens all the way to the Supreme Court.

Sadly, Stephens died on May 12 from kidney disease while waiting for the Supreme Court to finally rule, with her widow, Donna Stephens, taking over as plaintiff.

Transgender activist Aimee Stephens, sits in her wheelchair outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, October 8, 2019
Transgender activist Aimee Stephens, sits in her wheelchair outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, October 8, 2019 (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Before her death, Aimee Stephens left a message with her legal team at the ACLU to be shared if the court ruled in her favour.

In it, she said: “Firing me because I’m transgender was discrimination, plain and simple, and I am glad the Court recognised that what happened to me is wrong and illegal.

“I am thankful that the court said my transgender siblings and I have a place in our laws – it made me feel safer and more included in society.”

Her widow Donna Stephens said: “For the last seven years of Aimee’s life, she rose as a leader who fought against discrimination against transgender people, starting when she was fired for coming out as a woman, despite her recent promotion at the time. I am grateful for this victory to honour the legacy of Aimee, and to ensure people are treated fairly regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Skydiving instruction Donald Zarda was sacked for coming out to a customer.

Donald Zarda had been skydiving for more than 20 years when he was fired from his job as an instructor at New York’s Altitude Express over a customer complaint in 2010.

Before doing a tandem skydive with a woman, Zarda had attempted to put her at ease over the close physical contact required by telling her that he is gay. But after she complained about his conduct, he was sacked for sharing “inappropriate information” with a customer.

Donald Zarda was fired because he came out to a customer
Donald Zarda was fired because he came out to a customer (Photo: Zarda family)

Distraught at his treatment, Zarda filed a lawsuit against his former employer. The case was carried on by his surviving partner Bill Moore and his sister Melissa Zarda, after Don died in 2014.

Melissa Zarda said: “My brother Don was my rock, my everything. I stood in the Supreme Court to honour his memory and to continue the fight for fairness. What happened to Don was wrong. People in our country already knew this, and now there is no question.”

Ahead of the ruling, Bill Moore wrote: “I am tired. I miss Don, and I think about him every day. This case continues to dredge up painful memories. But I know how important it is, and how much Don would want me to keep fighting not just on his behalf, but on behalf of all the LGBT+ people in this country for whom workplaces remain unsafe and inhospitable. It would be life-changing for so many people to be able to stop worrying and know they can simply be themselves.”

Gerald Bostock was fired for playing softball while gay.

The only plaintiff who is still alive, Gerald Bostock, was fired from his job as a child social services coordinator in 2013 because his boss discovered he had joined a gay softball league.

He explained previously:  “I absolutely loved my job. It was my dream job… I was good at it. Then one day, I decided to join a gay recreational softball league, and from that moment forward my life changed, because I was fired.

“The reason for termination was ‘conduct unbecoming a Clayton County employee’. I knew immediately that it was because of my sexual orientation. It was the most difficult day of my life, aside from my cancer diagnosis.”

Gerald Bostock speaks to demonstrators in favour of LGBT rights rally outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, October 8, 2019
Gerald Bostock speaks to demonstrators in favour of LGBT rights rally outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, October 8, 2019. Gerald Bostock is one of the three plaintiffs to take landmark cases to the Supreme Court, alongside Aimee Stephens and Donald Zarda (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Bostock has fought the case for seven years – and is overjoyed to see it resolved in a way that helps every LGBT+ person.

In a statement, he said: “There are truly no words to describe just how elated I am.

“When I was fired seven years ago, I was devastated. But this fight became about so much more than me. I am sincerely grateful to the Supreme Court, my attorneys, advocacy organisations, and every person who supported me on this journey.

“Today, we can go to work without the fear of being fired for who we are and who we love. Yet, there is more work to be done. Discrimination has no place in this world, and I will not rest until we have equal rights for all.”

Tributes pour in for LGBT+ heroes after death of Aimee Stephens.

Campaigners have rushed to pay tribute to the three plaintiffs.

James Esseks of the ACLU, which represented Stephens and Zarda, said: “The court has caught up to the majority of our country, which already knows that discriminating against LGBT+ people is both unfair and against the law.

“We celebrate the LGBT+ people, including our clients Aimee Stephens and Don Zarda, as well as Donna Stephens, Aimee’s wife, and Bill Moore and Melissa Zarda, Don’s former partner and sister, who moved these cases forward after they died.”

Rachel Laser of Americans United said: “We owe a deep debt of gratitude to Aimee Stephens, Don Zarda and Gerald Bostock for their brave fight to secure these rights for the entire LGBT+ community, and we deeply regret that Aimee and Don are not here to celebrate these victories with us.

“We cannot imagine a more critical moment than during a public health crisis to make clear that the government should ensure that all of us – no matter who we are or who we love – can make a living in this country.”

Diana Flynn, litigation director for Lambda Legal, said: “In our hearts, we understand that we deserve to exist and be treated equally, the law was clearly on our side and the Court agreed. This is an incredible step forward in the civil rights of transgender people and the ripple effect of this decision will be far-reaching.

“I wish Aimee Stephens were here to see the impact she had on the rights of transgender people, by simply insisting that she and everyone in our community deserve better.”

DNC chair Tom Perez said: “None of this progress would have been possible without the unrelenting courage of countless LGBT+ Americans, including Aimee Stephens, whose bravery and strength to live authentically changed our country for the better.

“We will keep fighting for heroes like Aimee, and for all Americans striving for the promise of equality, dignity, and justice — no matter who they are, who they love, or how they identify.”

More: Aimee Stephens, donald zarda, Gerald Bostock, LGBT rights, supreme court

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