Two former librarians and two patrons are suing the Kansas town of Sterling and its public library board after the librarians claim they were fired over a June library display that included a rainbow autism awareness symbol that was interpreted as a Pride symbol.
Both librarians, Kari Wheeler and Brandy Lancaster, are neurodivergent and curated a display that included a rainbow infinity symbol with a heart and the words, “We all think differently,” a rainbow image of a child in a wheelchair and a quote from Black writer Maya Angelou that said, “In diversity there is beauty and strength.”
“One was the infinity symbol with a rainbow on it that said ‘everyone thinks differently,’ and I had one with a woman in a wheelchair with kind of a rainbow behind it,” Lancaster told 12 News. “They said those could not be displayed because they had an LGBTQ agenda to them.”
On June 22, a temporary summer library employee complained about the display to Michelle Miller, the vice chair of the library board. Miller texted Wheeler, saying: “I do not want any kind of rainbow display especially in this month. We have a conservative town and as a library do not need to make political statements (see Target and Bud Light as negative examples). I certainly do not want the library to promote LGBTQ agendas.”
Wheeler removed the display, which was supposed to be temporary. Two weeks later the board fired Wheeler and Lancaster, alleging that they had lost confidence in their ability to do their jobs. “When I chose to put something in the display case about Autism Cares, I was told I needed to take it down because it has a rainbow infinity flag,” Wheeler told 12 News.
The lawsuit alleges that the Sterling Free Public Library’s board violated the First Amendment rights of the librarians and that the city’s residents “are entitled to a library that embraces a range of viewpoints, not just the viewpoints of those with an aversion to rainbow colors and a disdain for LGBTQ citizens.”
The lawsuit also contends that the library has a history of anti-LGBTQ bias. In spring of 2023, a library patron suggested that the library buy all 19 books that had received the William Allen White Children’s Book Award. However, Miller objected to purchasing the book “Flight of the Puffin,” which features a nonbinary character. Miller and another board member suggested that if the book were purchased, it should be hidden at the library desk.
“The books are chosen by a board of people from the library of the state of Kansas and they’re recommended that everyone purchase them, so I was going to purchase all of them, including one they felt had connotations or maybe some LGBTQ things in them,” Wheeler said.
The library board also voted against sponsoring Sterling’s annual Fourth of July parade because one of the floats in the parade advertised a Pride event.
“It’s incredibly alarming. We would call it a travesty however, the fact that it’s been broken open and these issues have come to light, these sorts of biases and bigotry, coming from you know, a public-appointed board. It’s important to have this conversation,” Rice County Democrats Chair Katelyn Matteson told 12 News. “The fact that it happened is devastating but there are ways forward and I think the conversation in our community now is painful for people, but necessary.”