OPINION: The ‘villain’ in gay workers rights case has plenty to say

Chief Judge Steven Teske is widely known for his leadership on juvenile justice issues in Georgia and nationwide, including banning the use of shackles in juvenile court. (Gracie Bonds Staples / AJC.com)
Chief Judge Steven Teske is widely known for his leadership on juvenile justice issues in Georgia and nationwide, including banning the use of shackles in juvenile court. (Gracie Bonds Staples / AJC.com)

Credit: GRACIE BONDS STAPLES/gstaples@AJ

Credit: GRACIE BONDS STAPLES/gstaples@AJ

He applauds U.S. Supreme Court LGBTQ ruling, but calls lead plaintiff Gerald Bostock untruthful

Sometimes bad court cases end up making good law. That’s exactly what happened in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits discriminating against LGBTQ employees, says Steven Teske, who is Clayton County Juvenile Court’s chief judge.

He’s also the “villain” in this proceeding.

In 2013, Teske fired Gerald Bostock, the lead plaintiff in the case that swayed two conservative justices to join the Supreme Court's liberal wing in a 6-3 decision. Bostock, who was the coordinator of Clayton's CASA (court appointed special advocates) program, had sued in 2016, alleging he was fired because he was gay. But his lawsuit was dismissed without being heard.

Bostock contends it all went south after he joined the Honey Badgers of the gay Hotlanta Softball League and started getting disparaging comments at work about his sexual orientation. Then there was an audit of court funds and allegations that he misspent court money. Soon, after a decade of glowing job reviews, Bostock was an ex-employee.

In his majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote that protection of LGBTQ employees falls under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law,” Gorsuch said.

In a press conference after Monday’s surprise ruling, Bostock said: “I’m just thrilled and I’m proud that I’ve been part of this journey and have been able to contribute to this historic moment today.”

Last year, he summed it up even better: "My message to Clayton County is: Homophobia is unacceptable. We're in 2019 and discrimination like that in the workplace is wrong."

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As a guy who sweeps up after the news, I thought it might make for a good backstory to find out what knuckle-dragging troglodyte separated a good, caring man from his dream job just for being gay. I did some investigating and found out it was Teske.

That seemed odd. I've spoken with the judge several times and he is well known as a thoughtful leader in trying to turn around the lives of troubled youths, most of whom are African American.

I dialed and it was like Teske was waiting for my call.

“I’m glad the Supreme Court came down with that decision,” Teske said. “As a lawyer and a judge, I believe that gays and lesbians should not be discriminated against.”

“I avoided this going public before it went to the Supreme Court. I’m glad he (Bostock) won,” Teske said. “But there’s only so long he can hide from the truth.”

So what is the truth?

There was no sexual orientation surprise; the softball team didn’t sway anything, Teske said. “We knew from the start of his employment that he was gay.”

Like 10 years earlier.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday handed the LGBTQ community a major civil rights victory, ruling that federal law prohibits discrimination against gay and transgender employees in the workplace.

In fact, the judge said that he, his then-wife, Bostock, and Bostock’s partner at that time often socialized together.

“We went to gay venues in Midtown; we met a lot of their gay friends,” Teske said. “Gerald is a nice guy. My mom and dad loved him. That’s how close we were. He knew my kids, my mom, my dad. We became very close. That’s why it was very hard for me to let him go.”

Bostock’s job was to recruit and train volunteers who would be assigned to help monitor foster kids and then pass their findings to the court.

Bostock could be brusque, Teske said, which led to his employees “rebelling” against him early in his tenure. In fact, the judge worried the co-workers might be grumbling because Bostock was gay.

“We looked into it and my reaction was to bring in the employees and tell them that we support Gerald,” Teske told me. “If we wanted to get rid of him, we could have done it then.”

Judge Steven Teske
Judge Steven Teske

Bostock has contended the audit that came in 2013 was a pretext to fire him. The audit found there were virtually no controls over spending, and that “could result in loss of credibility to a program that has an outstanding reputation across Clayton County and the state.”

The audit found that almost all of the $12,294 spent the previous 28 months was on meals and entertainment, except for about $1,000 sponsoring the Atlanta softball team. It also found that Bostock spent hundreds of dollars without receipts and had a reception in Birmingham, Alabama, with his softball team.

Gerald Lynn Bostock, photographed on Sept. 10, 2019, during an interview in his home. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)
Gerald Lynn Bostock, photographed on Sept. 10, 2019, during an interview in his home. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Bostock has said the meals were for recruitment, including dinners in Midtown restaurants. He has said his Clayton employers frowned upon the fact that some of the restaurants catered to gay people.

“The problem the auditors had was the location,” Teske said. “You’re not going to get people from Atlanta to volunteer to come to Clayton County for court.”

I spoke with Bostock’s ex-partner, Paul, who asked that his last name not be used so he wouldn’t be seen as a traitor to the cause. “It was very weird for him to say he was getting fired for being gay. Everyone (at his job) knew he was gay. He was very out,” Paul said.

“I met Judge Teske several times as his partner,” said Paul. “I felt bad for Judge Teske because he was thrown under the bus. It felt like a slap in the face to (Teske) and his co-workers that they were called homophobic and mean-spirited.”

I called Bostock and left a message asking for an interview. A PR lady called back and said she’d set one up. When I told her what I wanted to talk about, she said I better talk with his lawyer.

The Supreme Court ruling has established a new precedent concerning gay people in the workplace. But Bostock’s original case against Clayton County has never been heard, having been thrown out of court earlier.

Tom Mew, one of the attorneys handling the workplace discrimination case of former Clayton County child welfare official Gerald Lynn Bostock. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)
Tom Mew, one of the attorneys handling the workplace discrimination case of former Clayton County child welfare official Gerald Lynn Bostock. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Attorney Thomas Mew said he didn’t want to speak about the facts of the case against Clayton County because they have not deposed witnesses or received evidence from the other side. He said Bostock’s team will tell their story then.

He did note there was a “timeline in this case” — that in January 2013, Bostock sponsored a gay softball team and months later, he’s gone.

Teske said he welcomes a trial.

“There are too many witnesses who know we enjoyed each other’s company,” he said. “We went to nightclubs together; there were times it was every weekend. I just don’t think he told the full story to his lawyers. Sooner or later, this is all going to come out.”