News (USA)

Students petition after high school cancels production of play about slain gay man

Matthew Shepard was killed in a brutal hate crime in 1998. His parents fought for hate crimes legislation after his death.
Matthew Shepard was killed in a brutal hate crime in 1998. His parents fought for hate crimes legislation after his death. Photo: via Wikipedia

A high school in Fort Worth, Texas, canceled a student production of The Laramie Project recently, sparking outrage from many in the community.

According to The Dallas Morning News, Timber Creek High School officials provided no explanation when they informed parents of the cancelation in an email last Friday. They said only that they were “working on developing an alternative production opportunity” for students” and that students would “still have an opportunity to read, discuss, and analyze the play” about the aftermath of the 1998 murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard “during the school day.”

Less than a week since the cancelation, an online petition seeking to get the play reinstated at Timber Creek High has received over 3,000 signatures. The petition describes The Laramie Project as “a poignant depiction of queer history.”

“By banning this play, we are not only suppressing an important piece of history but also denying our students a chance to understand and empathize with the struggles faced by the LGBTQ+ community,” a statement on the petition’s website reads. “The absence of such narratives can lead to ignorance, prejudice, and discrimination.”

It also cites a 2019 FBI report ranking Texas third in the nation for incidence of hate crimes. “It’s essential that our education system works towards creating awareness about these issues rather than shying away from them,” the petition reads.

In a statement, Bryce Nieman, a spokesperson for Keller Independent School District where Timber Creek High is located, said the decision to cancel the play was “made by many stakeholders.”

“The decision to move forward with another production at Timber Creek High School was based on the desire to provide a performance similar to the ones that have created much excitement from the community, like this year’s Keller ISD musical productions of Mary Poppins and White Christmas,” Nieman wrote.

While this is far from the first time the 2000 play has been banned or protested, Matthew Shepard Foundation president—and Shepard’s mother—Judy Shepard told the Dallas Morning News she’s seen an increase in attempts to cancel productions of The Laramie Project recently.

“My heart is broken when people still refuse to see how important this work is,” Shepard said. The play, she added, “might scare some kids. And it might wake some kids up. And it might make kids want to make change — all of those things. And they have the power to do it.”

The cancelation of The Laramie Project at Timber Creek High is just the latest controversy to rock Keller ISD. In late 2022, the school board banned books that address gender fluidity from school libraries at all grade levels. Last year, Keller trustees voted to establish rules banning district employees from promoting, encouraging, or requiring “the use of pronouns that are inconsistent with a student’s or other person’s biological sex.” Most recently, a Keller trustee was forced to resign earlier this month after she allowed a film crew from a Dutch evangelical TV network to interview Central High School students on campus without parents’ consent.

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