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OP-ED | Trumbull High, RENT, and Why the Fight for LGBT Equality Didn’t Stop with Marriage

by Susan Bigelow | Dec 13, 2013 1:00pm
(4) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Equality, Opinion

Susan Bigelow Two things happened in LGBT news this week: first, New Haven scored a “100” on the Human Rights’ Campaign’s municipal equality index. But second, and more worrisome, is that Trumbull High School’s administration continues to drag their feet on students performing the musical “RENT,” which contains LGBT themes and characters.

The latest from Trumbull is that “RENT” will happen, but the date’s been pushed back to May, where it will conflict with SATs. That would mean many students wouldn’t be able to perform in the play. Originally, the administration didn’t want to allow the musical at all, and only backed down after a serious backlash from parents, students, and people all over the state and country.

The administration says they need time to prepare a plan to “educate” students about the themes of the musical, though what it is the administration thinks kids need to know about LGBT people, HIV/AIDS, or skipping out on paying rent for a year while living in New York is beyond me. What a weasely way to try to shut down the musical. They should be ashamed of themselves.

It bugs me that this sort of thing still goes on. In 2002 I was a high school teacher in a rural Connecticut town, and the drama club decided to put on “The Laramie Project,” which was a play about the vile murder of Matthew Shepard. I was the assistant director — one of several faculty involved in the show. Originally, school administrators didn’t want this play to go on either, and although the principal eventually relented she personally went through the script, “editing” out huge chunks of material she deemed inappropriate. There were letters sent home to “inform” parents, and some parents did protest. Apparently, a play about the murder of a gay man that featured gay characters speaking was so outrageous that all kinds of precautions needed to be taken.

The students put on the play anyway, and they were brilliant. There weren’t any LGBT kids or teachers who felt safe enough to come out in those days, but the fact that the show went on at all was a victory. I remember crying when the final song played, Melissa Etheridge’s “Scarecrow.” The show made me feel more like me than anything else I did at that school, though at the time I couldn’t have told you why.

That’s why what’s going on in Trumbull is so disappointing. This isn’t 2002 anymore; so much has changed between now and then. But when the administration tries to shut down a musical because, at least in part, of characters who are LGBT living with HIV/AIDS, what message does that send to LGBT students, or people struggling with HIV/AIDS? It very clearly says “You are different, possibly dangerous, and people will object to you,” and that’s just for starters.

A lot has changed since 2002, which is where these administrators seem to be stuck. Connecticut legalized same-sex marriage in 2008, and passed a non-discrimination act protecting transgender people in 2011. But obviously more work needs to be done.

This is why I sometimes think the focus on marriage by high-profile LGBT activists is not always a good thing. There was once a fantastic advocacy group called Love Makes a Family here in Connecticut, but once equal marriage became legal they decided that they’d accomplished what they’d set out to do, packed up, and vanished.

We could really use them now.

Here’s the cold, hard facts: Life for LGBT kids is still very difficult. LGBT youth report high rates of bullying and violence at school, and are at a much higher risk than their straight peers for suicide. LGBT youth are much more likely than their straight counterparts to become homeless, where they face higher rates of sexual violence. Depression, unemployment, discrimination, the loss of family and friends — all these are dangers LGBT people face. Marriage equality didn’t make this go away, and the attitudes on display in Trumbull prove that.

The world has changed since 2002. Things seem to get better every year, at least in some places and for some people. New Haven, for instance, is doing fantastic work. But it’s become painfully obvious that it’s easier to legislate equality than it is to actually achieve it. We shouldn’t rest until we’ve created a world where everyone feels welcome and safe.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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(4) Comments

posted by: ocoandasoc | December 14, 2013  5:40pm

Handling equality and other LGBT issues with adults is pretty straightforward for progressive people. But dealing with those same issues with high school age children is much more difficult and well-meaning educators, social workers, community leaders and parents can struggle with them.
In the Trumbull case, the first thing that educators and administrators deal with is their fatigue with controversy – whether it’s sexual, political, or otherwise. Their first thoughts in a case like the current Trumbull one are “C’mon, kids. With thousands of non-controversial plays and musicals available, why do you have to perform one that will anger a segment of the community whose support we’re trying to nurture?” It’s not that they are not in favor of honestly dealing with LGBT issues, it’s just that they’d rather avoid it when it comes to something that should be easy, like the high school play. They’d rather “keep their powder dry” so they could deal with it in other areas – like whether the prom king and queen can be a same-sex couple! It sounds prehistoric, but in my high school days making “Catcher in the Rye” required reading for Junior English Lit students created quite a stir. Some things don’t really ever change.  But you can always count on teenagers to push the envelope.
Another thing to keep in mind is that we are talking about children here. And parental rights come into play. So do the attitudes of specific religions that the kids and their parents might belong to. You have to be careful that in protecting one right that you don’t trample on another. Discriminating against homosexuals in certain ways may be illegal, but holding a belief that homosexuality is sinful or deviant behavior is not.

Finally, there is a legitimate school of thought that believes that many high school students are too young and too physically/emotionally immature to make life-altering decisions regarding their ultimate sexuality. Many who have studied the issue believe that encouraging asexual teens to “pick a team,” or even stressing that “it’s okay if you’re different” can be a mistake. For example, a tall and gangly 13-year-old female athlete who cannot yet identify with her “boy-crazy” classmates might interpret this to mean she might be a lesbian, and finds it easier and more socially satisfying to label herself that way so she can become part of a clique with some of her classmates. Obviously this self-identification is more tribal than sexual, and it can have serious psychological consequences later.  Educators and parents often find sexual identification among teens to be treacherous territory. Having to stir up feelings and make official judgments regarding the appropriateness of a controversial play or book can be an added burden to their already crowded and complex agenda.

posted by: Susan Bigelow | December 15, 2013  1:11pm

These all seem like excuses, ocoandasoc, and not very good ones. If administrators are having “controversy fatigue” they’re in the wrong profession. Feelings of kids trump feelings of parents every time. And the idea that “these kids are too young to know what they want” has been an excuse to keep people safely in a closet for a very, very long time.

posted by: ASTANVET | December 16, 2013  3:43pm

It seems again that Susan is leading the charge on a personal issue - proving once again that there is no interest like self interest.  What bothers me is that she advocates for equal outcomes - not equal opportunity.  The freedom of speech does not mean you are also free from being offended by someone else’s free speech.  You cannot advocate for civil rights while bemoaning someone exercising their civil rights.  Life it complicated, but to try to gin up all sorts of hate for or against one particular thing that interests you is not an advocacy for equality.  I believe in equality, which is to say, that NO ONE is owed anything extra, given extra provisions, extra considerations… that Susan, is equal.

posted by: Greg | December 16, 2013  3:56pm

West Side Story has themes of gangs, violence, racial discrimination, immigration, and interracial relationships yet i don’t recall anyone getting in a huff when my high school did it in 2001, nor any other high school that i can recall, but by Trumbull’s standards it should be controvertial. 

What garbage. Kids these days are fully aware of the world around them and can handle a musical without needing mandatory reeducation from the administration.  How many of those kids watch Glee and saw similar “issues” in a TV show?

At least Goodspeed offered to host the show there.