Employee reprimanded for talking about gay rights

By admin

Originally published on Advocate.com July 17 2003 11:00 PM ET

A public library employee in Kansas is challenging her employer's reprimand after she talked openly at work about gay rights following June's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down sodomy laws. Bonnie Cuevas, a board member of the Kansas Unity and Pride Alliance and mother of a gay man, said two administrators at the Topeka and Shawnee County Library verbally reprimanded her and told her she was prohibited from discussing gay rights at work. They cited a complaint from a coworker who felt the subject was creating a hostile work environment, she said.

Following the high court's decision, Cuevas, an events coordinator for the library, spoke by telephone to friends and reporters about the decision and how it affects her family. She said she also talked about the decision to a coworker who approached her for information about it. The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the library Wednesday, asking officials to reconsider their prohibition on Cuevas's ability to discuss the case without the group resorting to legal action. Ken Choe, staff attorney for the ACLU in New York, said he was optimistic the library would remove the restriction. "If there was a concern about spending too much time on the phone for personal reasons, that's one thing," Choe said. "All Mrs. Cuevas is seeking to do is talk about this landmark Supreme Court decision as any employee has the right to talk about matters of public concern."

David Leamon, director of the library, said he recently returned from vacation and was not aware of the situation. If anything, he said, Cuevas would have been told not to use the telephone for personal matters and that the library doesn't take sides on issues. "The subject is not an issue at all," Leamon said. Leamon said the staff complained that Cuevas was being disruptive because of the frequent, impassioned telephone calls. "We never issue gag orders," Leamon said. "The library is on neutral ground, and we don't take positions on issues." The library has hosted programs dealing with gay and lesbian issues in the past, and the building should be a place where ideas can be shared openly, Leamon said.

Cuevas, a member of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, was quoted in USA Today the day after the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws, including the one on the books in Kansas. She told the paper how her son, now 27, nearly died when he was beaten while leaving a gay bar with his boyfriend. The interview lasted just a few minutes, Cuevas said, and she also received brief telephone calls from supporters. The next day she received one more phone call and was approached by a coworker, who said the ruling was important to him. She was then told in private by supervisors that not everyone agreed with her views, and she was verbally reprimanded, Cuevas said. "I was just flabbergasted. I couldn't believe it," she said. "The only way I could see it was discrimination--because it was making some people uncomfortable with their homophobia." Cuevas, 54, said she didn't understand how an issue of such national interest could be inappropriate for the workplace, especially in a library that has been so concerned about using filters to limit Internet content.