Texas high school faces backlash after cancelling upcoming LGBTQ+ play The Laramie Project

Protestors hold a candlelight vigil for Matthew Shepard.

A Texas high school has sparked anger by cancelled a play about the 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Shepard.

Officials at Timber Creek High School sparked a backlash across the city of Keller, a town about 35 miles from Dallas, after announcing in an email on a Friday (23 February) that it was cancelling the production, with no explanation.

Students would have “an opportunity to read, discuss and analyse the play during the school day”, principal Shawn Duhon wrote in the email.

“Our theatre directors are already working on developing an alternative production opportunity for students,” Duhon continued. “Details about this will be shared in the coming weeks.”

The popular play, The Laramie Project, focuses on the murder of Wyoming student Shepard, and explores the aftermath and influence it had on the local community.

Protestors holding up signs, with one reading "anti-hate laws now" and holding candles dedicated to Matthew Shepard.
Protestors at a vigil for murdered student Matthew Shepard in 1998. (Getty)

Written by Moisés Kaufman, it was adapted into a film, starring Christina Ricci, Laura Linney, Peter Fonda, Joshua Jackson and Steve Buscemi, in 2002.

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Cyndi Lauper and Stockard Channing have starred in stage versions of the story.

According to Dallas News, the production was set to open in the spring but was abruptly cancelled with little or no information given to parents or students about the reason for the decision.

The move has been widely criticised by Keller residents, who pointed to the city school board’s continued anti-LGBTQ+ stance, including pronoun and toilet policies, as evidence that the cancellation was because of the nature of the story.

According to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the district told the Morning News, that the play is likely to be replaced by Mary Poppins or White Christmas.

A petition launched on 24 February demands that the Keller Independent School District (KISD) “works towards creating awareness about [LGBTQ+] issues rather than shying away from them”, adding: “We urge you to reconsider this decision and allow Timbercreek High School to perform The Laramie Project.

Almost 3,000 people have signed the petition so far, including students and local community members.

In a post on social media the petition’s organiser, Dee, claimed that district superintendent Tracy Johnson had not even read the script before approving the decision to cancel the production.

In an email shared on social media, Johnson responded: “For me, to read the script in an attempt to change my mind isn’t necessary because it was never about the subject matter.”

Speaking to PinkNews, Dee said: “Honestly even if they don’t reinstate the play, our biggest hope is that something like this doesn’t happen again.

“With all of the press attention they’re getting, it can’t possibly be putting the school in a positive light. We all just want the school board to read scripts before denying them as well as release all of the reasons why they denied this play and any future productions.

“I’m honestly very disappointed in how the school district has reacted to everything,” Dee continued. “They repeatedly refuse to comment on the situation, despite the petition now having over 3,000 signatures.

“I think that’s why we’re so angry. It shows a severe lack of accountability as well as a lack of conflict resolution skills on their end, which is important when you’re in a seat of power.”

Dee continued by criticising KISD’s track record, saying that the board has “repeatedly made the district feel unsafe for queer students for years.”

“I also just want to say how proud I am of everyone involved in the play,” Dee continued. “People think teenagers don’t know what they’re talking about but I have never seen a more passionate group of people.

“I’m proud of my sibling, who’s the first one who brought this to my attention, as well as everyone who’s signed so far.”

Texas school district scrutinised for anti-trans policies

KISD came under scrutiny last year, following its decision to pass two policies targeting trans and non-binary students. One prevents school staff from using the correct pronouns of a transgender pupil, while the other bars trans schoolchildren from toilets consistent with their gender identity.

Local residents argued that the policies would “protect bullies” and “embolden their hate”, according to Kera News.

The policies “violate federal law” and “severely misinterpret Texas law”, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas wrote in an open letter.

“Enacting these policies would harm Keller students, invade their medical privacy and defy best practices recommended by non-partisan education associations,” the human rights organisation added.

In what was seen as one of worst anti-gay hate crimes in the US, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson pistol whipped Shepard, tied him to a fence in freezing conditions and set fire to him before leaving him to die.

They were both convicted of first-degree murder and given life sentences. They were not charged with a hate crime because that wasn’t possible under legislation in Wyoming at the time. But in 2009 President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act into law, which defined certain attacks motivated by victim identity as hate crimes.