Donna Stephens opens up about her wife, the late LBGTQ rights champion Aimee Stephens, and her enduring legacy for Women’s History Month.
REDFORD, Mich.—Donna Stephens knows her late wife changed the world.
In 2020, Donna and her wife Aimee went on a trip up to Michigan’s Thumb for the day, just north of Port Huron. They had lunch and enjoyed the atmosphere of Michigan. It was the last trip they’d take together, and it’s a memory Donna will always cherish.
“She seemed to really enjoy it, to get out and watch the freighters on the lake go by.” Donna recounted to The ‘Gander. “That was, like, her last trip that we did together.”
They spent that time on Lake Huron like everyday Michigan women, but Aimee was also making history in Washington DC, and solidifying her legacy.
A Transgender Michigander’s Legacy
When Aimee Stephens came out as transgender, she did so with a tone of optimism. She wrote in the 2013 letter coming out as transgender to her employer, R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, “I have learned that life is an adventure and would like to believe that the best is yet to come.”
Her employer fired her.
That set off years of litigation that reached the United States Supreme Court in 2020. Just weeks after Stephens died, the Supreme Court found in her favor, protecting transgender Americans from workplace discrimination nationwide. And without the decision in Aimee’s case, Donna isn’t sure the progress LGBTQ Americans, and in particular Michiganders, have made would’ve been possible.
Without her efforts, Donna thinks things like the national Equality Act or modernizing Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act would be that much harder, if they happened at all. As it stands, both proposals are before lawmakers and if passed will block discrimination against LGBTQ people at both a federal and state level.
The American Civil Liberties Union is using Aimee’s case in its arguments for LBGTQ civil rights cases nationwide. Aimee would be proud to see that, Donna said.
“I know she’d be happy that she had a hand in being able to push some of that forward,” Donna said. “I think that the Supreme Court voting the way they did and the message they gave really told the American people that, hey, [transgender people] exist and they deserve the equal rights of everyone else.”
And Aimee’s contributions to the broader LBGTQ community continue to inspire people, Donna said. She told The ‘Gander that people often tell her how important Aimee was to them, and it never fails to be touching.
When Aimee was alive, she was often surprised at how influential she was, Donna said. But the mark she left is undeniable now.
A Champion for LBGTQ Rights
One of the most treasured moments for Aimee was her send-off before she went to her Supreme Court hearing, where a book of letters from people supporting her, inspired by her, or who felt safer because of her was gifted to Aimee.
“It really hit her, how many lives that she really was helping and encouraging, and that she touched,” Donna told The ‘Gander. “I don’t think she realized how many people were following her case and looking up to her.”
And, Donna said, if Aimee’s health had been better and if she was still alive today, she’d be in the street supporting things like the Equality Act or Elliott-Larsen, things that are moving forward in an era of LGBTQ civil rights blooming in the wake of her Supreme Court victory.
“Her thing was never give up, to keep on fighting,” Donna said. “If her health had been better, she’d probably be out there speaking and helping others and helping push legislation through. It’s just a shame that her health wasn’t better.”
And Aimee’s legacy matters now more than ever. Fighting for rights, fighting to end a pandemic, fighting to reclaim lives after a devastating year, Aimee’s core philosophy—never give up—resonates with Michiganders, Donna said.
And for Donna, a year after Aimee’s death, she hangs onto those special moments on Lake Huron with her wife who would change the world.