Sound familiar?

That was the question posed by the source who sent this. Why, yes. Yes it does.

Corona del Mar (Orange County, CA) drama teacher Ron Martin reports that his principal canceled a student production of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent because it includes gay characters. Principal Fal Asrani claims that she only asked to review the script for “objectionable content,” at which time she says Martin decided there was “not enough time to revise the script.” There are all kinds of problems with Asrani’s version. First of all, it’s pretty unlikely that a drama teacher would cite such a reason; it would be illegal to “revise the script,” as Rent is copyrighted material. Significantly, Asrani identified the objectionable content she was concerned about as “homosexuality and prostitution.” Rent includes gay and straight characters, but contains no content about prostitution.

Students told the Daily Pilot that they were informed of the cancellation of the show at a drama class lunch meeting, and that the reason was that “Ms. Asrani did not want homosexual characters portrayed on stage.”

As it turns out, the production was going to use the “high school edition” of the script, a version from which all physical contact between gay characters (or, in the parlance of former Delegate and erstwhile Loudoun theater critic Dick Black, “homoerotic sex acts”) has been redacted. As senior Ryan Willison told the Daily Pilot, it was “hard to imagine what was left in the script to object to — aside from the presence of gay characters.”

“They don’t even let the gay couples kiss on stage, so I’m not sure what she’s objecting to,” Willison said.

Nothing objectionable, certainly. Even these redactions of supposed “adult content” send a highly offensive message. Unless there is a “no kissing” criterion that applies across the board, regardless of the character’s gender, this is an unacceptable insult to every GLBT student, parent, teacher and audience member. Our own community was subjected to such insult during the 2005 school board deliberations over drama policy here in Loudoun, such as in this exchange during a Legislative and Policy committee meeting:

Struggling to explain why he and Mr. Guzman thought it necessary to include language that specified “content that depicts sexual acts that warrents a disclaimer” be prohibited, Mr. Ohneiser informs us that “you could have sexual acts that are not necessarily obscene but are shameful or morbid.”

“What exactly do you mean by sexual interaction?” asked Superintendent Hatrick. “Are we talking about copulation? Are we talking about a kiss? Holding hands? Is there a legal definition?”

“There could be depictions of sexual interaction that are not shameful or morbid,” Mr. Ohneiser explained. Mr. Nuzzaco, helpfully, reassured everyone that his proposed language wouldn’t prohibit “sexual interaction, like a kiss, between a male and a female,” but would “cover this stuff we’re concerned about.”

But setting that aside for the moment, what revisions could possibly have been needed to an already heavily edited “high school” version of the script? Removal of the gay characters altogether, apparently. The redactions of physical contact are presumably an effort to placate anti-gay activists; but what we know is that such activists will not be placated by anything less than the complete erasure of GLBT people. As professional anti-gay activist Patricia Phillips told the Washington Post about Loudoun’s policy, her objective was for “the normalization [visibility] of homosexuality to be prevented.” Since Asrani knew that the production would be using the high school edition, what conclusion can we reach, other than that “Ms. Asrani did not want homosexual characters portrayed on stage?”

Martin said that in the five years he’s worked at the school, Asrani had never asked to review a script before a production. The teacher had already discussed the abridged school edition of “Rent” — which cuts out same-sex contact — with actors’ parents and says none had a problem with the material. And previous shows such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” portrayed adult themes without raising administrators’ eyebrows.

To be perfectly fair, Rent is about the lives of young adults, and therefore deals with adult themes. And I don’t mean to knock the play chosen to replace Rent, one that Martin was confident would “pass muster” with his boss. I myself was in a production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown – in the fourth grade.

Asrani denies being motivated by anti-gay prejudice, and there are some in the community who defend her as being open-minded. Still, she and Martin tell a very different story.

Asrani said she would not scrap a musical simply because it contained gay characters. “I am surprised by all these (rumors) flying around,” she said.

Gay and lesbian students “get the same respect (as) anybody else, and that would be the same (for characters) in a play,” Asrani said.

Martin, in an interview, told a much different version of events. Rehearsals hadn’t begun and scripts hadn’t been ordered, so getting a script for the principal would take almost two weeks, he said, and Asrani decided that would not leave enough time for revision and changes.

Regardless, “she had already told me that she would not let it proceed because of the homosexuality in it,” Martin said.

It wouldn’t be surprising to find that this “drama” was precipitated on behalf of a national anti-gay advocacy group, as it was here in Loudoun (the assault on a good drama teacher and principal was waged by Concerned Women for America, under the leadership of Patricia Phillips and Dick Black). Martin points out that a previous production elicited a single complaint from an audience member, which is just how the campaign against the Loudoun play Offsides started. A current student involved in that production, No Reservations, reports that the principal reacted to this single complaint by attempting, unsuccessfully, to censor the play: “Asrani ordered the drama department to take several scenes from the musical after its opening! One of which was a scene in which a character discusses prejudice he encounters against his homosexuality.”

Perhaps Asrani is being pressured, fears becoming the target of a national campaign, and her attempt to avoid controversy has backfired badly. That has happened here, too, with the attempted removal from school libraries of the award-winning children’s book And Tango Makes Three.

This likely explanation is supported by another commenter from the school community who shares this:

There is more to this than people can see on the surface. The principal is a micromanaging politician with a strong self-serving agenda. She’s not so much anti-gay as much as she is anti-controversy. She’s out to protect her image, and lying is her first line of defense. It is likely that she did say something in the meeting with the drama teacher, and that she’s back-peddling to save herself. She’s caught between the conservative opinions of the community she works for and public scrutiny over discrimination. [Emphasis added]

Whatever the excuse, the principal is the last line of defense between her students and activists in the community who are determined to violate them by any means necessary. Her job is to protect those kids, not her own comfort. She needs to be held accountable for doing her job. For his part, Martin says that he chose Rent in the first place because he “hoped it would be a vehicle for teaching tolerance after overhearing students using homosexual slurs.”

In a letter to recent alumni, now being circulated widely in the school community, a current student urges students and others to organize, and writes:

Do not sit by and allow things like this to keep happening. Our school prides itself on its association with humanitarian organizations and its label as a “No Place For Hate School”, but those distinctions feel incredibly hollow to me now.

An alumna tells the LA Times that some of her best friends in high school were gay students, and says “to think that they would feel unwelcome there now is what angers me so much about this.”

Not welcome here. Your very existence is an “inappropriate topic” and violates the rights of those who disagree with you. That is a message of hate, it is exactly the message that anti-gay activists wish to convey to GLBT people, and there is simply no denying it. If a school administrator allows that message to be conveyed to the students in her care via the heckler’s veto, she might as well be saying it to them herself.

I prefer the honesty of this poster, who tells us: “Anybody who went to public school knows the drama department is nothing but a gay club anyway. They should all be closed down across the country,” and ends with what must be his favorite Bible verse: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. [Emphasis his]”

That is the sort of person from whom students need protection, and it’s better that they make themselves known. Similarly, I had an interesting exchange with one of the speakers before the school board in the course of our 2005 “drama,” which I subsequently shared with the board members. This gentleman, who happens to be the son of Margi Wallo, Eugene Delgaudio‘s appointee to our Public Library Board of Trustees, repeated to me something he had said during his commentary, something he earnestly wanted to explain to me as being reasonable. He framed the conflict between the opposing sides on this issue as his right to his religious beliefs versus my right to exist.

First of all, I don’t think this framing is accurate. There is no fundamental contradiction between his right to his belief, apparently, that I shouldn’t exist, and the fact that I do exist. I have no interest in taking the right to his belief from him. Regardless, he was sincere, and either didn’t realize what he was saying or was being remarkably honest about his intentions toward me. Hypothetically, though, I asked the school board, if it did come down to a contest between those two things – his right to a belief, versus my right to exist – which one of those things do you think would be morally defensible?

This will no doubt become clearer to Principal Asrani as this story plays out. We wish her courage and integrity.

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3 Responses to Sound familiar?

  1. Faux Asrani says:

    Well, my, my.

    I never anticipated such an outcry, and during the Presidents Week break no less. It must be a slow news week; I’d hoped that drug-resistant head lice issue at the elementary school would’ve stolen the spotlight by now. All I was trying to do was protect the community from a play with unseemly characters, and their dreadful homosexual behaviors. All this stress, I long for my home country. President Ahmadinejad is right when he states that there are no homosexuals in Iran.

    That Martin, he thinks he can go on with this play? We’ll see about that. And if any students dare to show up next week wearing ‘RENT’ t-shirts, well they had better be very careful. I’d hate to see any graduating seniors expelled for having marijuana found in their locker. Zero tolerance, remember.

  2. David says:

    It certainly seems that this incident is not helping Principal Asrani’s popularity. Ouch.

    We look forward to seeing what happens next week, and hope that the cooler heads prevail.

  3. billyboy says:

    Asrani has popularity?