Some students wanted to do a gay play. So the school district cut theater funding.

Transgender high school students Isaac Barnett, right, and his prom date, identified only by his first name Jasen, get ready to take prom photos in Kansas City, Mo. LGBTQ students attending prom has sparked controversy in both the US and Canada. Charlie Riedel, AP

A theater that runs a program for high school students lost $30,000 in yearly district funding because it will be staging a production of a musical about homophobia.

The Grande Theatre in London, Ontario, runs a yearly high school project where around 70 students can produce and act in a musical. Previous productions have included West Side Story, Les Miserables, and Evita.

The project requires $250,000 to $300,000 Canadian (about $200,000 to $240,000 US) each year, and two local school boards – the London District Catholic School Board (Catholic schools are publicly funded in Canada) and the Thames Valley District School Board – give a total of $30,000 each year since their students benefit from the project.

But not this year. The Grande Theatre High School Project chose Prom Queen: The Musical, which is based on the true story of Marc Hall and his fight to go to prom with his boyfriend.

In 2002, Hall sued his Catholic school district because they wouldn’t let him go to prom with a boy. Hall argued that since the school is publicly funded, it had to follow the law that banned discrimination in Ontario. The district argued that its religious freedom would be violated if it were forced to allow the boys to attend prom together. Hall won his case and attended prom with a boy.

His story got made into a musical that has been performed for years in theaters in Canada, as well as on television.

“This is a Canadian musical about true events that happened to high school students, when one boy stood up and said, ‘I can make a difference in the world,’ and (succeeded),” Grand Theatre artistic director Dennis Garnhum told the Canadian Press. “This is a very celebratory piece.”

That’s not how the school districts saw it, though. The play uses “a lot of derogatory terms for gay people and profanity found throughout that, quite frankly, if students used that language on the playground they would be suspended,” Thames Valley District School Board chair Matt Reid said.

“There were other more alarming aspects including having a priest blackmail a student… and having a teacher betray the student and lie (in court) under oath.” Reid added, “The portrayal of adults in the script is not consistent with our approach and belief in the critical and caring roles that our adults play in the lives of our students.”

Ed De Decker, superintendent of education on the London Catholic District School Board, said that the play uses “dated stereotypes” about Catholics.

“It presents a principal who is fixated on rules for the sake of rules (and) portrays the Catholic Church as something that is rigid, not inclusive, not accepting, not welcoming — a message that is very different from the one that we receive regularly from Pope Francis,” De Decker said, talking about a play that takes place before Pope Francis.

Of course, most plays contain behavior for which students wouldn’t just get suspended for imitating, but sent to prison. West Side Story portrays a few murders, but apparently murder isn’t as bad as lying under oath.

And while De Decker is worried that Prom Queen portrays Catholics as “fixated on rules for the sake of rules,” was he at all concerned that Les Miserables – where a man who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread is hounded by an overzealous police officer – promotes negative stereotypes about French people?

The real issue appears to be that the play is about a student who challenged his Ontario school district less than two decades ago. Rather than being “outdated,” it’s probably “too soon” for these school boards.

Hall himself was “troubled” by the controversy. “Prom Queen is a story about high school students and it is quite relevant to them,” he said.

“Pulling this funding just speaks to how relevant this is.”

The program has raised over $57,000 Canadian online since the controversy started, more than making up for the school districts’ decisions to de-fund the program.

This Story Filed Under

Share your opinion about our comments section