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Kansas Librarians Fired Over Autism Display Mistaken for LGBTQ+ Support Sue Town

Kansas Librarians Fired Over Autism Display Mistaken for LGBTQ+ Support Sue Town

Brandy Lancaster and Kari Wheeler

They intended to support autism awareness and neurodiversity, but were fired because conservatives in town thought their colorful display supported the LGBTQ+ community.

Two Kansas librarians have been fired after conservative officials in their town mistook a multi-colored display as something for Pride and the "LGBTQ agenda."

Now they're suing, the Washington Post reports.

In June, Kari Wheeler and Brandy Lancaster, librarians at the Sterling Free Public Library in Sterling, a small community in central Kansas, created two displays celebrating and raising awareness about autism and neurodiversity. The displays featured rainbow colors and messages advocating for diversity and understanding, including quotes like “We all think differently” and “In diversity is beauty and strength,” according to the paper.

The displays were part of the nationwide summer reading program themed “All Together Now.”

However, according to a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for Kansas, the displays were misconstrued by a board member as promoting an “LGBTQ agenda,” leading to Wheeler and Lancaster’s termination. The lawsuit alleges that board member Michelle Miller waged an “illegal campaign” to censor the displays based on her misconception, implicating the library’s board, the city, and the mayor in violating the librarians’ rights to free speech.

Wheeler, who had taken the role of library director in August 2022, and Lancaster, hired in March as Wheeler’s aide and acting assistant librarian, claimed their initiative was misunderstood as taking a stand on LGBTQ+ issues rather than its intention to support neurodiversity. They said the installation was rooted in inclusivity and referenced a Harvard Medical School article in the suit, emphasizing that neurodiversity recognizes various ways individuals interact with their surroundings, challenging the notion of a singular “right” way of thinking and learning.

Tensions escalated quickly after a temporary library employee misconceived a multicolored infinity symbol representing LGBTQ+ Pride, triggering a series of text exchanges involving Miller. Within hours, Miller communicated her disdain for the display to Wheeler, mentioning the “conservative” nature of the town and her unwillingness to have the library “make political statements.”

Despite the explanation provided by Lancaster regarding the symbol’s representation of neurodiversity and autism, Miller purportedly leveraged her position on the board to rally support for the removal of the display, an action that seemingly disregarded the librarians’ focus on inclusivity and the celebration of differences.

The events culminated in two special board meetings in July, the first of which saw Wheeler and Lancaster providing information on state laws protecting library materials from censorship due to differing viewpoints, according to the Post. The second meeting resulted in the firing of both librarians, with board president Jeremy Stinemetz allegedly stating Wheeler had “lost the confidence of the board to effectively perform her position.”

The concerned board members and Sterling’s City Manager, Craig Crossette, opted not to comment on the ongoing litigation to the paper, maintaining their positions without public explanations regarding the incident.

Nearly ten weeks after their dismissal, Wheeler and Lancaster initiated legal proceedings, defending their right to free speech and opposing what they claimed was a termination anchored in misconception and prejudice. The lawsuit remains pending.

Libraries across the country have been attacked by far-right local residents and political leaders over LGBTQ+ books, Pride displays and the like.

Pictured above is Brandy Lancaster (L) and Kari Wheeler.

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