Nick Breiner had been teaching at McNabb Middle School in eastern Kentucky for about three years when he received a frantic message from one of his students.
Another student, a seventh-grade girl, had sent a note that outlined her intent to kill herself, he said. The police were called and rushed to the girl’s home, as did Breiner. Both parties arrived before the girl had done any harm to herself.
Breiner knew she was struggling. She had told him that she identified as a lesbian and was facing friction with her family over that part of her identity, he said.
The experience prompted Breiner, a choral and theater teacher who identifies as bisexual, to come out on his Instagram account in April 2017.
“That age is pretty emotional, pretty tough. And then when you add LGBT on top of that and not accepting families, it becomes exponentially more of a challenge,” Breiner said. “The thought process was if that student had a teacher that she knew and trusted where she was coming from, would she have gotten to that point?”
Three days later, Breiner said, he was summoned to a meeting with the leadership from the school district, in Mount Sterling, a town of about 7,200 east of Lexington. They questioned him about his sexual orientation, he said.
Less than a month later, he was told that his contract would not be renewed for the next school year. Breiner said he believes the public school system let him go because of his sexual orientation.
His contention forms the basis for a federal lawsuit he filed against the Montgomery County Board of Education, which runs the school he worked at. The lawsuit was dismissed in January by a U.S. District Court judge, but Breiner is appealing the ruling.
The lawsuit wades into a complicated legal picture nationally around the protection — or lack thereof — for LGBT people in workplaces.
Kentucky state law does not offer workplace protections for LGBT people, and there is no federal law that explicitly prohibits discrimination against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And whether the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of sex discrimination includes sexual orientation is the subject of a heated debate in the Trump era — even within the federal government. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does believe it includes sexual orientation and gender identity, but the Justice Department under President Trump has argued that it doesn’t. The Supreme Court has yet to take up the question.
Breiner said he’s been given a shifting set of explanations about why his contract was allowed to lapse. He said school officials first told him it was because of budget cuts, but he said the school then hired a heterosexual woman to work the same position later that summer. The school district later informed him it was because of what it said were performance issues, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.
Breiner said he had received only exemplary evaluations at the school.
He described the meeting after his Instagram post in detail in an interview, saying administration officials had told him they were concerned that his sexuality would be an issue in the community. He said he was told that a parent had called with concerns that he would be discussing his sexuality in the classroom and trying to change his students’ religious beliefs.
“That’s absurd. That’s nothing I would ever bring up in a classroom,” he said.
The district’s superintendent, Matthew Thompson, declined to comment to The Washington Post, citing the pending litigation.
Adam P. Romero, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Law, said in an interview that two federal appeals courts have found that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is sex discrimination. The appeals court that covers Kentucky has ruled unfavorably in this regard, he said, and will present a tougher case. There are several cases of this nature pending in front of the Supreme Court, he said.
“Whether the Supreme Court will take them, we don’t know, but at some point the Supreme Court will probably need to step in and resolve this conflict,” he said. “Or Congress could step in and amend the Civil Rights Act.”
Breiner said his case has drawn a lot of attention for the past year in the community around Mount Sterling. More than 30 people protested his dismissal in front of the county courthouse shortly after his contract was not renewed in 2017.
He said another article this week in the Courier-Journal set off another round of people reaching out to him to show their support.
“That’s what I’ve experienced most — this positive reaction,” he said. “So despite the fact there has been hateful responses, most of it has been very supportive, which has certainly restored a little bit of faith.”
Breiner is no longer teaching and is working as an actor. He said he has no regrets about his decision to come out publicly on Instagram.
“There were a lot of points along the way that I considered giving it up,” he said. “But I decided the possibility that I might be able to facilitate that positive change — it was too important to let it go. While it was disheartening at first, ultimately it has only strengthened my resolve to see something positive come out of this experience, not only for me but everybody.”