Lessons Learned from Cancelling “The Laramie Project” at a Catholic High School

March 24, 2012

One has to wonder what kind of lessons are taught to students when parents’ complaints to New Jersey Catholic high school administrators caused the cancelling of a production of The Laramie Project, a play about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young Wyoming gay man.

According to a news story in The Trenton Times, the decision to cancel the show, originally scheduled for Notre Dame high school in Lawrence, N.J.,

“has proved to be just as controversial as the play’s edgy and dramatic portrayal of a Wyoming town gripped in the aftermath of a hate crime.

“On one side, school administrators say parents worried that the choice for the play was inappropriate for high schoolers, too loaded in its tale of the murder of a young gay man beaten and left tied to a fence to die.

“But cast members and students at the Catholic high school said they’ve been unfairly robbed of their ability to put on a thought-provoking and powerful play, one whose message of tolerance resonates powerfully in the wake of the Tyler Clementi cyberbullying verdict and other anti-harassment efforts.

“ ‘I wanted to do a show that had meaning and purpose to it and when I found out we were doing “The Laramie Project” I got really excited because this show teaches the values I’ve been taught my last 12 years of Catholic education,’ cast member and Notre Dame senior Tessa Holtenrichs said. ‘When I was told we couldn’t do it, I felt like it was really hypocritical.’ ”

Clearly, the overwhelming lessons of the school’s action are going to be that censorship is appropriate, that homosexuality is a forbidden topic, and that concerns about sexual activity are much more important that lessons about respect and tolerance.

What makes this decision even more difficult to understand is that that school administrators had previously deliberated over whether or not to stage the play, and had made a conscious decision that it would be beneficial to do so:

“School president Barry Breen and principal Mary Ivins said in a statement the choice for the spring play was originally seen as a ‘powerful and appropriate vehicle’ to address issues of respect and tolerance. But as calls questioning the play’s content rolled in, officials worried that the controversy would become distracting, and the decision was made Tuesday to cancel the show.

“ ‘The expression of these concerns opened our eyes to the realization that different eyes will see radically different messages than the ones we intended,’ they said.

“ ‘This has led the administration to conclude that we might inadvertently be placing our school at the center of an undesired and potentially damaging controversy by moving forward with the production.’ ”

The administration’s rationale teaches the wrong lesson that public pressure, not a principled decision, should be guide one’s thought.

Not all parents were against the staging of the play.  At least one thought the play–and its ensuing controversy–had the potential for an important lesson:

“ ‘I think the people had the assumption that the play was going to do something it never would have done, to encourage students to become homosexuals instead of not killing homosexuals,’ Diane Steinberg, a parent of a Notre Dame student and an alum, said during an interview.

“She said the school missed the chance to turn any controversy into a teachable moment.”

As one student’s comments illustrate, preparing for the play was already producing beneficial lessons for students:

“ ‘My director, Ms. (Diane) Wargo, said something pretty powerful,’  [Tessa] Holtenrichs said. ‘She said Jesus didn’t die on the cross for us to have so many rules about who to love and how to love. I thought that was great.’ ”

What is even more surprising is that many Catholic high schools and colleges stage this play regularly.  In 2010, Xavier High School in Manhattan, produced this play for the second time in less than ten years, and withstood pressure to cancel it.  According to a New York Times article:

“Not only did Xavier’s president and headmaster approve the plan for ‘Laramie,’ they informed Mr. Ostrow [the drama teacher]  that he was not exactly breaking new ground. Xavier had performed ‘Laramie’ in the 2002-3 school year, standing by the production even amid some eye-rolling and grumbling among faculty members and parents and a smattering of picketing from fundamentalist Christians. “

What lessons did staging this production at Xavier teach students?  According to school administrators quoted in theNew York Times:

“ ;I’m thrilled we did it,; Jack Raslowsky, Xavier’s president, said in an interview this week. ‘It’s one of those plays that has the potential to be a springboard to discussion. If you do “The Mousetrap” or “Brigadoon,” you’re not going to be discussing issues of good and evil.’

“Such a discussion, said Mr. Raslowsky and Michael LiVigni, the headmaster, fits firmly in the Catholic theological tradition, with its emphases on social justice and human dignity.

“ ‘When I saw the play,’ Mr. LiVigni said, ‘what struck me most was the scene of Matthew’s funeral when you have picketers with the sign “God Hates You.” But why would God hate what he created? That’s what I want our boys to understand.’ ”

Now, that’s a lesson worth teaching and learning.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Tyler Clementi’s Catholic Cousin Speaks Tearfully for Marriage Equality in N.J.

February 4, 2012
Suicide of Tyler Clementi

Tyler Clementi

Perhaps the most moving Catholic testimony in support of marriage equality comes from Jennifer Ehrentraut-Segro, cousin of the late Tyler Clementi, whose suicide in 2010 because of vicious anti-gay bullying sparked a national movement to end bullying.  Ehrentraut-Segro, in front of the New Jersey Assembly Judiciary committee hearing on that state’s marriage equality bill, talks, through tears, about how anti-gay sentiment marred the joy of her wedding day, and also how her Catholic parish gathered around her and her family to support them after Clementi’s death.

You can listen to the four-minute audio here, thanks to GoodAsYou.org.

A tragic reminder that marriage equality is needed to save lives.  A hopeful reminder that Catholic straight allies have an essential role in this struggle.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


NEWS NOTES: January 31, 2012

January 31, 2012

Here are some links to items you might find of interest:

1) The controversy surrounding the naming of anti-homophobia student groups in Ontario’s Catholic schools has added a new wrinkle with a Toronto Star report that the Province’s Education “College [is] asked to investigate principal who banned gay-straight alliance.”   Bondings 2.0’s  latest posting on this controversy can be accessed here.

2) The Washington Blade reports that “religious institutions receiving federal funds for housing programs will have to abide by a new HUD (Housing & Urban Development) rule prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people.”  Details can be found in the article “HUD: Religious groups must abide by LGBT non-bias rule.”
In a letter to President Obama, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had opposed the non-discrimination rule. Equally Blessed, a Catholic coalition of LGBT justice and equality, also sent a letter to Obama in support of the rule.

3) The Buffalo News‘ Donn Esmonde writes how a “Priest’s legacy of tolerance is all-embracing.”  It’s an inspiring memoir about the late Msgr. William Schwinger of whom he writes:  “Back when society treated gays as incomplete people, long before anyone envisioned the state sanctioning gay marriage, this priest— despite the Catholic Church’s institutional condemnation of homosexuality— welcomed them into the fold.”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

January 29, 2012

A New Ways Ministry friend from Ontario wrote  to say that our post yesterday about what to name GSAs in Canada’s Catholic state-funded schools may have left the impression that the controversy was over.

It’s not.

While the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association’s (OCSTA) debate about what to name the groups has ended, their decision still has to be reviewed by the Ontario’s Education Minister, Laurel Broten.   Broten’s initial response to OCSTA’s announcement was printed in an article on Xtra.ca:

“”We have set our expectations out clearly in the Accepting Schools Act. We have said that if requested by a student, every school and school board must support the establishment of a single-issue club to support students with a range of issues, including groups like a gay-straight alliance. This bill is still before the House and I hope that every member of the legislature will support the work we’re doing to make Ontario’s schools safe for every student.

“I understand the Catholic trustees have released a paper. And I’ll take a look at that paper. We are creating a law – an accepting school law – that will lay out expectations for every school in Ontario and their obligations around supporting all students.

“My expectation is that every board in this province will abide by our policies – policies that very clearly state that schools need to support student-led initiatives such a gay straight alliance.

“Boards may choose different approaches to meet that expectation, but all must work to the same goal: ensuring every student feels welcome, safe and supported in an environment free from discrimination and harassment.

“If requested by a student, the board must find a way to support the student. For example, the Ottawa Carleton DSB has a Rainbow coalition. This is not about the name but about what support is provided to students.”

So before the naming decision is finalized, it still has to be reviewed, a legislative battle looms, and, most likely court challenges will follow.

Meanwhile, the naming controversy has raised the issue of whether Catholic schools should be receiving government funding. Grant LaFleche in St. Catherines’ Standard opined:

“If anything, this entire ordeal shows that maybe it’s finally time to revisit the complicated political question of public funding for Catholic schools. The provincial government has guaranteed gay students in taxpayer funded schools they can have peer support groups (although they are allowing schools the right to name those groups). The association is trying to marry incompatible ideas — the rights of those students and the church’s view on homosexuality. Were these schools privately funded, it would not be an issue. But they are publicly funded. Which means tax dollars are going to be a measure of discrimination, even if that discrimination isn’t obvious at first glance.”

Chris Selley, in Canada’s National Post was a bit stronger.

“I didn’t think Queen’s Park [site of Ontario’s government buildings] had the stomach for a fight with the Church on this matter, or most any other matter, beforehand. . . . I’ll leave it to gay students in the Catholic system to decide if clubs conducted under the OCSTA’s new policy would constitute an improvement. But politically, this smells to me like yet another attempt to be seen addressing a problem without angering a powerful stakeholder. And it illustrates yet again that when push comes to shove, publicly funded Catholic education, in Ontario, in 2012, makes very little sense at all.

Stay tuned.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


What’s In a Name?

January 28, 2012

The highly controversial debate over what to name the government-mandated anti-homophobia clubs in state-funded Catholic schools of Ontario has been settled.  Though they are commonly called “gay-straight alliances” (GSAs), Catholic officials balked at this title. After eight months of wrangling, the Ontario Catholic Schools Trustees’ Association (OCTSA) has settled on a choice, and it has also issued guidelines for how to run these groups, reports the Toronto Star:

“Now, at last, the puff of white smoke has emerged. In a report sent Thursday to schools, the committee suggests anti-bullying groups be called “Respecting Difference clubs.” They must have a staff advisor committed to the Catholic faith, they are not to provide personal counseling in a group setting, and are not to be a forum for “activism, protest or advocacy of anything that is not in accord with the Catholic faith foundation of the school,” says the 15-page blueprint sent out this week to all Catholic school boards.

“ ‘This is about helping kids feel safe against bullying, not as advocacy for a lifestyle,’  said Nancy Kirby, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association. ‘We have nothing against homosexuals, but it’s the (homosexual) act that is in contradiction of the teachings of the church.’ “

Why is there such a controversy over what to name these groups?  In an article on Xtra.ca, a Canadian lesbian/gay news organization, quotes Kirby’s reasoning for opposing “gay-straight alliance:”

“ ‘It won’t be a gay-straight alliance,’ she told Xtra in past interviews. ‘When I look at a gay-straight alliance, I see an activist group. We are answering the students’ request for support and assistance, not for activism. Students don’t want to become activists; they want to be supported in being bullied by their peers.’ ”

At least one observer disagrees with Kirby’s assessment.  In The Windsor Star‘s article,  Larry Lavender, vice-president of Windsor Pride says that gay-straight alliances are not activist organizations and that, in reality, they function pretty much in the way that Catholic trustees want the groups conducted. He states:

” ‘They’re just meeting once a week after classes, and socializing and talking about their problems and being there for each other.’ ”

Lavender has no problem with the new name:

“ ‘As long as they allow them and don’t impede them, don’t suppress their function, is it really important what they’re called?’ Lavender asked. ‘No, not really.’ ”

However, one of the people at the center of this controversy and who stands to be one of those most affected by the decision is not happy with the Trustees’ decision. Leanne Iskander, a student who has been asking for a GSA at her school since last March and who has organized Catholic Students For GSAs,  doesn’t like the new term at all. In an interview with the Toronto Star explains her position:

“ ‘It highlights the difference, rather than the similarities, and it should be about more than just respect — it should be about accepting people as they are. . . ‘ “

In The Globe and Mail article on the topic, Iskander added a thought which highlights how futile it is for authorities to try to pull the wool over young adults who can smell phoniness a mile away:

“ ‘We wouldn’t use this name if they [the school] tried to push it on us.’ ”

Is something’s name really important? Definitely.  The name sets a context for an organization and sends a message about what is permissible and not permissible for discussion.  A name is not only a label:  it also contains values.  Part of the problem in this controversy is that the (OCTSA) sees that the word “gay” only can mean illicit sex and/or political activism, and so it is devalued.  In  The Globe and Mail article, Kirby stated:

“ ‘We may not agree with the advocacy of a lifestyle, but still believe that gay students, and for that matter any students, should not be bullied. . . .We are totally against bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and have nothing against homosexuality. But this is about anti-bullying specifically, not promoting a lifestyle that goes against our Catholic teachings.’ ”

While it is admirable that Kirby is against bullying, her worries about “promoting a lifestyle” are overblown and reveal a defensiveness that, if enacted in these organizations, will guarantee their failure.

If sexual activity and political activism are one’s starting points for understanding LGBT people–particularly young LGBT people–this assumption reveals that there is really no understanding at all.

–Francis DeBernardo,  New Ways Ministry

Bondings 2.0 reported earlier about this controversy in the following postings:

NEWS NOTES: January 18, 2012

Silence Is Not Golden

Abolish ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in Ontario’s Catholic Schools”


Meet Marc Mutty

January 26, 2012

Marc Mutty

Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of the name “Marc Mutty” before.  I hadn’t heard of  him until yesterday when several news items about him flashed across my computer desktop.  He’s sort of a cross between Daniel Avila, the advisor to the U.S. bishops who last year created an uproar when he claimed that the devil caused homosexuality, and Cardinal George,  who earlier this month apologized for comparing the LGBT movement to the Ku Klux Klan.

I first saw his name in the lead paragraphs of an article about Maine’s anti-bullying bill being approved by a legislative committee:

“After the Legislature’s Education Committee voted unanimously to pass a new anti-bullying bill, Marc Mutty of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland reached out and shook the hand of the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland.

“It was a brief exchange, an easily overlooked moment.

“But to Morrison, who is openly gay, the handshake with Mutty, who has worked on campaigns to oppose same-sex marriage, was a big deal.

I was touched by this gesture, and the fact that it signified that a Catholic official was supportive of a law that would help LGBT young people.  It made me think kindly towards Marc Mutty. Since I was curious about who he was, I did what any self-respecting 21st century hipster would do:  I googled him.

What I learned was that Mutty was, in fact, the Director of Public Affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine.  A little further digging revealed that he had also been the Chair of “Yes on 1,” the organization which led the fight to block the extension of civil marriage rights to lesbian/gay couples in Maine’s 2009 referendum. Now I was not thinking so kindly towards him.

Further digging revealed that a new documentary film shows that Mutty actually regretted a lot of the anti-gay rhetoric that he promoted during the 2009 campaign, even acknowledging that some of it was blatantly untrue.  According to a Portland Press Herald April 17, 2011, article, the documentary contains interviews of Mutty acknowledging that  his words were sometimes false:

” ‘We use a lot of hyperbole and I think that’s always dangerous,’ says Mutty during a Yes on 1 strategy session, at the time on leave from his job as public affairs director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine.

” ‘You know, we say things like “Teachers will be forced to (teach same-sex marriage in schools)!” ‘ he continues. ‘Well, that’s not a completely accurate statement and we all know it isn’t,you know?'”

At this point, my feelings turn to anger that someone in a responsible position, someone who holds a leadership role in the Catholic Church, would spread knowingly misinformation about LGBT people.

The article goes on to describe Mutty’s shame and regret:

“At another point, he laments, ‘I fear I’ll be remembered for the work I did on this campaign.’

“He even goes so far as to plead ‘for forgiveness for the ways in which I might have betrayed my own self in this endeavor.’ “

Now, my feelings for him turned to sadness.   It must be very hard to promote ideas that one doesn’t believe and that one knows to be untrue.  It must be even harder to do so, if one reflects on the harm that such words and ideas can cause to people.  Like Daniel Avila and Cardinal George, with whom I have compared him, Mutty seems to have got caught up in his own rhetoric and extrapolated it to its own false conclusions. It seems that when he heard himself speak those conclusions he realized how wrong he was, but by this point, he had painted himself into a corner of his own words and could not find a way out.

I decided to write about Marc Mutty because he is like many people that I have met during my work in the church: people who become so blinded by their ideology that they find it difficult to speak the truth.   He is like the many people I have met who actually do not believe the anti-gay messages that they promote, but who continue to promote them because of fear of losing their positions and prestige or who get blinded by their own rhetoric.   Their actions cause damage to others, for sure.  Equally as sure, however, is that their duplicity causes harm to themselves.

At the risk of sounding pious, we need to pray for people like Marc Mutty.  I think people who work for LGBT equality need to make safe spaces for people like him to admit their errors, free of judgment.

In his case, let’s hope and pray that his handshake on the anti-bullying bill is a step towards integrity for him and justice for LGBT people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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