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Text condemning the firing of four LGBTQ+ employees of Appalachian State University

A graduate student government association voted unanimously to condemn the firing of four Appalachian State employees who were a part of an LGBTQ+ staff and faculty affinity group.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Photo: Marie Freeman/Courtesy of Appalachian State University | Text: Appalachian State University Graduate Student Government Association

Appalachian State University has fired four leaders of a group for LGBTQ+ employees, three of those former employees told Inside Higher Ed in interviews.

When they asked why they were being terminated, two of the former employees said they were told, “North Carolina is an at-will state.”

The employees said the firings come at a time when the university appears to be cutting back on the use of some diversity, equity and inclusion terminology and restricting pride events. Though North Carolina has not yet passed any DEI bans, as states like Texas and Florida have, Appalachian State wouldn’t be the first institution to roll back such programs without a legal requirement to do so. Texas Tech University, for example, closed its DEI office soon after Texas passed an anti-DEI bill but long before it went into effect. The University of Oklahoma announced it would close its DEI office the same day that Governor Kevin Stitt ordered public colleges to review DEI-related programs and weed out unnecessary ones, even though advocates argued eliminating the entire office was not warranted.

Still, DEI has come under some scrutiny in North Carolina; in March 2023, a General Assembly commission requested information about DEI trainings and their cost to the University of North Carolina system’s institutions.

But Appalachian State denies it is taking any steps to reduce or eliminate DEI programs.

“We are committed to the work of our strategic plan, which includes cultivating and supporting a welcoming university community and an academic culture of collaboration and respect through education and inclusive practices, as well as the UNC System goals related to providing academic, financial, and cultural support for students from all walks of life,” Megan Hayes, a spokesperson for the university, told Inside Higher Ed in an email.

She cited recent examples of that work, including events highlighting Deaf people and ASL, the intersection of science and Indigenous ways of knowing, and Appalachian folk magic.

Affinity Group Connection

Two of the employees who were terminated, Jax Lastinger, who was fired this month, and Sarah Hoffert, who was fired in October of 2023, founded an LGBTQ+-affinity group called Queer and Trans Staff and Faculty, or QTSAF, in 2021. They used Google forms to garner interest and received about 50 responses; through one of those responses, they learned that there was already a similar group that operated somewhat covertly.

Eventually, Lastinger and Hoffert merged their new group with the existing one, launching with a picnic in July of 2021. Shortly after, the university officially recognized QTSAF and gave it funding. Since then, the group has mostly held social gatherings, but it has done some advocacy work as well.

“Some staff on campus have been told that they’re not allowed to … put their pronouns on their name tags [and business cards] that the university creates,” Lastinger said. “So, [QTSAF] tried to ask questions about that.”

Hayes told Inside Higher Ed that there are limitations on what business cards can include, but that name badges can have pronouns on them.

In March 2023, MB Bowen, another leader of the group, was fired; three more leaders were fired over the next year. Lastinger and Hoffert both noted that several employees not affiliated with the group were also fired during the same time period.

Hoffert, who worked as a case manager for students experiencing interpersonal violence, said she had clashed with a previous supervisor over what she described as unequal access to remote work and professional development several months before she was fired. But her termination came as a surprise; her current supervisor wasn’t even present at the meeting where she was fired, she said.

“I just found out one day in October, which was like the busiest month for reports for sexual violence … they were like, ‘Today’s your last day, you won’t be able to act in any way as an employee of the university,’” she said. “I couldn’t even sign into my email after that.”

According to Hayes, policies and procedures regarding termination vary based on employment classification, but an employee’s direct supervisor must always be involved in the process.

Another former employee and QTSAF leader, Kora Smith, who is transgender, said she was constantly misgendered and deadnamed by other employees while working as a housekeeper at Appalachian State. She complained about this treatment but nothing came of it, she said, and she was given significantly more work than her coworkers.

Though this caused her work to suffer, she received no notice ahead of her firing in September, six months after she was first hired.

“The whole thing felt really rushed and under the table and unprofessional,” said Smith, who added that in her capacity as a QTSAF leader, she was a “huge voice” in the campus’s LGBTQ+ community.

Changes to DEI Initiatives

Lastinger, who uses they/them pronouns, worked as a director of DEI educational development and campus climate strategies at Appalachian State until they were fired earlier this month. About a month and a half before the termination, they said, a supervisor told them to remove certain words—including “unconscious bias,” “intersectionality” and “microaggression”—from the DEI trainings they delivered to campus community members. Lastinger’s training workshops often centered on such concepts, so they had to rework the materials to avoid the off-limits words while upholding the substance of the trainings.

The General Assembly commission’s March 2023 request to collect information on the UNC system’s DEI trainings included those same words on a list of potential indicators of DEI-related programs.

Hayes did not deny that employees were told to avoid certain words but pushed back on the notion that it was intended to stifle DEI.

“Language and terminology are important, and at App State, we strive to use language that is supportive for multiple populations of our campus community we serve in order to fulfill our mission and strategic plan,” Hayes wrote. “This includes exploring ways to achieve our mission without creating additional barriers for others in the process.”

Paulette Granberry Russell, president and CEO of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, took issue with the idea of prohibiting DEI-related language.

“The political backlash to diversity, equity, and inclusion work amounts to attempts to ban decades of theoretically sound and empirically validated research. This includes microaggressions, which are the everyday slights, insults, and offensive behavior that impact the quality of student experiences on campus,” she said in an emailed statement.

“Be clear, language and terminology is indeed important—as is the way research informs interventions and strategies for addressing student success. Tying our hands on how we respond to the needs of a diverse student body is the objective, and unfortunately, the introduction of bills across the country is having a chilling effect in those states where bills have not been introduced.”

Drag Trivia Event

Some LGBTQ+ students at Appalachian State say the university is limiting their voices as well. Earlier this month, the university allegedly cancelled a student-run drag trivia event that was planned for the spring, according to the student who was organizing the event. The student, who requested anonymity to avoid backlash, said that she began planning it last fall to coincide with the university’s annual weeklong pride celebration in April.

In February, she successfully reserved two rooms in the student union for the event. But in March, a request to publicize the event online was denied.

The student also said she received a phone call from an unnamed administrator stating that the university could not promote events with the word “drag” in the title.

The cancellation drew student backlash. The Graduate Student Government Association unanimously voted to denounce the event’s cancellation as well as other actions they accuse the administration of taking against the university’s LGBTQ+ community, including the firings.

Hayes said that she could find no record of this specific event, but noted that an approval of a room request does not inherently signify the approval of an event. She also said that “there is no official or unofficial ban on the word ‘drag,’ nor can we find anyone familiar with anyone who has said this in an official or unofficial capacity.”

The GSGA resolution denounced another change made to Appalachian State’s annual pride celebrations: this year the celebration will be called not “Pride Week,” as in the past, but rather the “Henderson Springs LGBTQ+ Center’s Spring Fest”—after the university’s LGBTQ+ center—or “Spring Fest” for short.

Hayes argued that the name and the festival’s programming was “created by members of the university community” and honored Bo Henderson and Ed Springs, the center’s namesakes.

She also relayed a statement from the center which read, in part, “Spring Fest 2024 is a celebration of the vibrant uniqueness within the Queer community. Throughout the weeklong programming, we aim to create inclusive spaces where every identity is celebrated.”

‘Eyebrow-Raising’ Pattern

Eric Fink, a professor specializing in employment law at the Elon University School of Law, said it’s impossible to know whether LGBTQ+ identity or affiliation with QTSAF is involved in these terminations. But he said that the pattern of firings, combined with the lack of information the former employees were given about why they were terminated, was “eyebrow-raising.”

“If the employees can present enough to make what the courts call [a] plausible [argument] that it was based on sexual orientation, gender identity or association with this group, then the employer does have to put forward a nondiscriminatory reason,” he said.

Bowen, one of the former employees who also uses they/them pronouns, has filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint alleging they were discriminated against for being queer. Bowen told Inside Higher Ed that their lawyer advised them not to speak to the media about the matter until the complaint is resolved.

In her email to Inside Higher Ed, Hayes denied that there was any effort at Appalachian State to fire LGBTQ+ employees.

“Employee transitions, whether voluntary or involuntary, can impact members of our campus community, particularly when they were part of our underrepresented communities. If there are faculty, staff or students looking for support, we encourage them to reach out to our campus resources,” she wrote.

Hoffert said that even if the firings had nothing to do with QTSAF or the former employees’ identities, they’ve still had a palpable impact on campus.

“I think it’s harmful to students. I think it is harmful to the [campus] environment,” she said. “Honestly, before I got fired, it was scary to see it happen to other people, and I just think employees deserve a safer, better environment, and queer people deserve to feel like they’re not targeted.”

Correction: This story has been updated to say that the request for information on UNC's DEI trainings came from a General Assembly commission, not the attorney general's office.

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