A transgender woman was fired from her job at a Nebraska coffee shop after telling a conservative activist that she wasn’t welcome at the establishment.
Natalie Weiss said she was working at Cultiva Espresso & Crepes in Lincoln on Wednesday when she spotted a familiar woman eating a crepe: Marilyn Synek.
Synek is a communications specialist at the Nebraska Family Alliance, a “pro-life and pro-family” lobbying organization that has campaigned against state legislation that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, including an LGBTQ rights ordinance in Lincoln, the state’s capital.
Weiss had actively been working to pass the ordinance — which would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in employment, public accommodations and housing — as a canvas director for the Nebraska ACLU and OutNebraska, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization. The ordinance was approved by the Lincoln City Council in 2012, but, due to a subsequent petition from conservative groups, including the Nebraska Family Alliance, the ordinance could not be enacted without a majority vote from residents.
This month, Weiss took the public stance that the ordinance should not be voted on anytime soon because of a lack of public support and resources, a decision she called “painful,” but one that LGBTQ leaders, including Councilman James Michael Bowers, who is gay, and Councilwoman Sandra Washington, who is lesbian, share.
“Based on our estimates, we’d need 250 canvassers knocking on doors seven days a week for an eight-month minimum to see the ordinance pass,” Weiss said. “It took a toll on me to have to take that position, and it put me at odds with members of my community.”
According to Weiss, Synek was a regular at Cultiva, a shop where the majority of the staff identifies as LGBTQ+, because the establishment is close to City Hall and the state Capitol. Though it wasn’t her first time seeing Synek at the shop, Weiss said she had been dealing with her frustration with the ordinance’s stalemate as well as recovering from a cold before the incident occurred on Wednesday.
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“Right there, sitting there was the face of an organization that has been the source of a great deal of personal stress,” Weiss told NBC News.
Weiss said she called Synek’s name and said to her: “I thought I recognized you. … You should get the f--- out and never come back.”
Weiss couldn’t recall her exact phrasing, but noted that her words were “vulgar.”
In a statement to NBC News, Synek said that Weiss called her “bigoted trash” and that she was not “f------ wanted” at the coffee shop. Synek added that Weiss said if she came back, she would be refused service.
Weiss said she understood that the interaction was “unprofessional” and that while she expected to be reprimanded by Cultiva’s management, she was not expecting to be fired.
“We were told we were allowed to ask anyone who make us feel uncomfortable and unsafe to leave, so I felt empowered to do what I did,” Weiss said. “The soft, unspoken caveat was that the people had to make us feel uncomfortable while we were working, not outside of the shift.”
Weiss said her general manager received a phone call from upper management, alerting him that Weiss was fired approximately a half-hour after the incident.
Jason Anderson, owner of the shop, wrote in an email to NBC News that the incident was a "regrettable situation on many levels."
"Groups like the Nebraska Family Alliance pose a direct threat to her life and to the entire LGBT community," Anderson added. "As for the incident in our store, we responded as we would with any other staff member, apologized as we would to any nondisruptive guest, and later attempted to defuse public anger and threats with our social media post."
Both Weiss and Cultiva’s management said they’d been fielding threatening phone calls, emails and other messages in the aftermath of the incident. Weiss, whose passion is theater, said she felt forced to quit a local production of “Macbeth” because she was worried about putting the cast and crew’s lives in danger.
“The Nebraska Family Alliance always tells gay people to go get their wedding cakes at another shop if one won’t serve them, so why couldn’t Synek go to another shop instead of starting a firestorm within 24 hours?” Weiss said. “Now her allies are calling my former co-workers faggots, and her political allies are sending threats over Facebook.”
Synek, for her part, said she had “never broadcasted” her political opinions at Cultiva and always treated the employees with respect.
Though Weiss said many have offered to set up GoFundMe accounts on her behalf after she lost her job, she hopes people who sympathize with her will consider donating to OutNebraska instead.
“So, for those keeping track, in Nebraska, you can be fired or lose your home because you identify as LGBTQ+, and you can also be fired for telling people who fight for that status quo to get lost,” Weiss said.
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