Pictured above: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Apollo Civic Theatre in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
A Maryland school district already facing allegations of anti-transgender discrimination is in the spotlight again, this time for axing a musical with gay dad characters.
Hyattsville Middle School officials have reversed their decision to cancel a production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee after parents protested this week.
Students at the middle school have been rehearsing the play for three months, but this week administrators halted rehearsals, citing concerns that the content was too mature for middle school students. That material includes a brief appearance by two LGBTQ characters. Parents say the trouble started when a parent complained about gay content in the production to school administrators.
In a statement released on the school’s parent and teacher Facebook page, district interim CEO Dr. Monica Goldson said the play was deemed more appropriate for high school students than middle schoolers because of language:
Teachers expressed concern given the extended use of profanity in the play even though it was identified as PG-13 appropriate. The supervisor for performing arts was then requested to review content during which time it was decided that the play should be canceled since copyright laws did not permit the change in language when she reached out to the company.
The licensing company, Music Theatre International, did not respond to a media inquiry, but told ABC7 News that they have accommodated other requests to amend scripts.
Jamie McGonnigal, a gay dad in the district, refutes the district’s version of events. He said he spoke with six students about the production.
“All of them were led to believe that the cancellation was over the gay parents portrayed in the show,” McGonnigal said, adding that the script contains on occasional “damn” that can be swapped for a “darn” and a song called “My Unfortunate Erection” that has been regularly changed to “My Unfortunate Distraction.”
“The idea that this was canceled over profanity was a lie,” McGonnigal told ABC7 News.
LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD took the district to task over the cancellation. GLAAD chief programs officer Zeke Stokes says the district needed to come clean about its motivation for axing the show.
“Every student in every school deserves to be valued for who they are,” Stokes explains to NewNowNext. “If this show was cancelled because of its LGBTQ content, it sends a dangerous and discriminatory message that should never be associated with our public schools.”
A petition launched by McGonnigal to reinstate the show had gained more than 7,000 signatures by Thursday, April 25. On Wednesday, April 24, administrators said they would allow the production to proceed with the gay characters.
“We celebrate our diversity and recognize the many rich contributions of the LGBTQ community to the greater Hyattsville Community,” wrote Principal Thornton Boone in a letter.
However, it’s not the first time the district has been accused of anti-LGBTQ animus.
Last November, Lambda Legal hit the district with a federal lawsuit alleging egregious anti-transgender discrimination on behalf former English teacher Jennifer Eller. Eller claims the district allowed students, staff, and parents to treat her so her so inhumanely over years that she was forced into outpatient psychiatric services before resigning in 2017.
Her complaint details years of alleged abuse, including being told she was not allowed to wear a dress to school, intentional misgendering by students and staff, and being forced to present as male.
“I woke up each day afraid to go to work because I didn’t know where the next attack would come from, but I already knew full well that the school administrators would do nothing to support me,” Eller said in a statement. “My pleas for help, for sensitivity training on LGBTQ issues for students and staff, fell on deaf ears.”
Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, claims the issue at Prince George’s County Public Schools is not just a lack of policy, but basic training for district staff.
“Unfortunately what we are seeing at Prince George’s County Public Schools is really a culture of discrimination and harassment toward LGBTQ people, and not just teachers but students and really the community as a whole,” he tells NewNowNext. “I think that the incident that happened at this middle school is really indicative of that as well.”
Eller’s suit is still pending. Raven Hill, a spokesperson for the district, declined to comment on the pending litigation, but said that teachers, administrators, and staff do in fact receive training on LGBTQ cultural sensitivity.