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