For seven years, Sara Leone has edited books for Duke University Press. She says she was attracted to the position—and, in fact, relocated to the Triangle from Connecticut—because of the nearly century-old publisher’s deep catalog of LGBTQ theory and queer and transgender-related titles.  

But on August 2, Leone filed a grievance with the university, alleging that she’s been marginalized and unfairly treated by her superiors because she is genderqueer. In an email last week, Leone told the INDY she’s been “silenced and bullied” and “subjected to a nonstop, hostile barrage of unethical work practices and verbiage.”

Leone has not returned to work since August 10. Duke declined to comment on her complaint. 

Founded in 1921, DUP publishes about 120 new books a year, along with more than 50 journals and digital collections. Its catalog includes 230 titles listed under LGBTQ studies, 150 under queer theory, and 51 under trans studies, according to its website. 

“Oh, the irony, since Duke University Press is known worldwide for its LGBTQ list,” Leone says. 

Now fifty-six, Leone earned her master’s degree at Brown University in 2000 and worked with the university’s graduate and medical students’ LGBTQ association until 2010, when she moved back home to Connecticut to help her mother care for her gravely ill father. 

By 2012, with her father in a rest home—he passed away in 2014—Leone was wondering what to do with her life. At Brown, she’d noticed that a lot of the books that arrived at the university came from DUP. She went online and found that the press was “incredibly forward-thinking. It had developed a platform for LGBTQ authors, including a quarterly journal devoted to transgender studies.”

She applied for a position in late 2012 and was hired two months later.

“It was the first place I looked, and the only job I applied for,” she says.

Leone says she thought she was going to work in a “paradise of diversity.” But red flags appeared almost immediately. There were no people of color working for DUP, she says. It was a “very vanilla and very provincial workplace.” Her coworkers made unsettling remarks—not directed at her—about women’s supposedly “lesbian” appearances. At first, she confronted them, but that made her feel like an outsider, so she learned to keep quiet. 

Over the last two years, she says, she began noticing disparities in how she and two of her heterosexual women colleagues were treated. It came to a head after her mother was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in February. Her colleagues were allowed to work remotely—one from Colorado, another from England—to be closer to their families. But Leone says that when she asked to work remotely so she could better care for her mother, who had moved to Durham, her supervisor said no. 

“She stated that eldercare was not the same thing as childcare because children are helpless,” Leone says. “I thought of my mother, lying on the couch, wearing a diaper, unable to eat.” 

Then, in June, she asked to work remotely from New Haven, as her mother was seeking care from a lung specialist at Yale. Her request was immediately rejected. When Leone pointed out that she was being treated differently than her heterosexual coworkers, she says, her supervisor and human resources director told her that “what other people [do] is none of [your] business.” 

“I am going to be fifty-seven years old, and I have never been so silenced and marginalized in my life,” she says. “And now they privilege heterosexual conjugal visits over an LGBTQ person trying to save their mother’s life—and during Pride Month, no less. This is Duke Press. Henry VIII would feel at home.”

Leone burned through her vacation and sick time to be with her mother. She says when she complained about the amount of unpaid leave she was taking, the HR director told her to sell her house in Raleigh, which she’d purchased two years ago—the first home she’d owned. 

In July, she applied for time off through the Family Medical Leave Act. With her application pending, she kept coming to work. But then, in early August, her mother became “violently ill” in the middle of the night. Leone took her to the emergency room. She emailed her supervisors to ask them to ask if she could work from home, given the circumstances. The next morning, August 10, she received an email telling her she was needed at a meeting. 

“Something snapped in me,” Leone says, “and I haven’t been back to work since. I don’t care if I lose everything that I own.”

Fortuitously, her FMLA application was approved on August 9, and she’s relying on it for health care. She’s doing freelance jobs from home to cover expenses, though she’s not making enough to pay her mortgage.

Terri Frazier, who worked with Leone until 2017, describes an environment at DUP fraught with employee turnover, overworked staffers, and out-of-touch managers who made arbitrary decisions based on whether employees had “crossed” human resources. 

A married mother of three, Frazier says she was aware of Leone’s difficulties with her supervisors, but she wasn’t sure if those were because of her gender identity.

“It would not surprise me at all if it was because of her status,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking because she’s trying to save her mother’s life, and she may lose her house because she’s on unpaid leave. It’s not as if she’s was asking for time off. She’s asking to work from home. They are not giving her any leeway at all, and they let other people do that.”

“I’ve truly devoted my life to creating dialogue about oppression,” Leone says. “And now, after being so blessed to have these chances throughout my life, I’ve been stripped of my voice, othered, and silenced into invisibility.”

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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