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School’s Spamalot censorship for homosexual themes is senseless

Plans for a South Williamsport production of Monty Python’s Spamalot have ceased to be. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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During the dark days of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which controlled British theatrical output between the years of 1824 and 1968, all new plays were read for “unfavourable or corrupting” content, so that “vulnerable” audiences might be protected.

This included plays depicting homosexuality, which until 1967 was illegal in the UK (at least in its male variety – legend has it that Queen Victoria insisted that ladies didn’t do such things).

Later, during the dark days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, a form of explicit censorship returned when Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was enacted stating that local authorities:

Shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” nor “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.

This was repealed in Scotland in 2000 and in the rest of the UK in 2003. In 2009, David Cameron made a public apology:

I am sorry for Section 28. We got it wrong. It was an emotional issue. I hope you can forgive us.

America, the “land of the free”, has had a rocky history with anti-homosexuality law, too. But homosexuality has been legal in all states of the union for over a decade, 19 states offer same-sex marriage recognised by the federal government and 21 states ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

So, it was astonishing to read, in these relatively enlightened times, a dispatch from my New York-based colleague Howard Sherman.

The report highlights the case of a high school in Pennyslvania that cancelled a planned 2015 production of Monty Python’s Spamalot due to its “homosexual themes”. Although the cancellation was reported in early July, the suspected motives have only just been confirmed.

The school’s principal Jesse Smith wrote to its drama director Dawn Burch, in which he explicitly stated the reasons for his disapproval:

I am not comfortable with Spamalot and its homosexual themes for two main reasons:

1. Drama productions are supposed to be community events. They are supposed to be performances that families can attend. To me, this kind of material makes it very hard for this to take place. I don’t want families to be afraid of bringing small kids because of the content. I don’t want members of the community staying home because they feel the material is too risque or controversial.

2. I think that choosing productions with this type of material or productions that may be deemed controversial put students in a tough spot. I don’t want students to have to choose between their own personal beliefs and whether or not to take part in a production.

The school administration subsequently put in place “a public performance policy”, which states:

Material that is generally considered offensive, suggestive, or demeaning based on race, religion, age, gender, or sexual orientation is not appropriate for school performances.

But Sherman is wise to their rhetoric. He duly notes:

What the policy did not say is that material supporting inclusive representations of race, religion, age, gender, or sexual orientation would be encouraged. Currently in Pennsylvania, marriage equality is the law, however there is no equal rights protection for sexual orientation.

And he brilliantly concludes:

Students return to school in South Williamsport today with the false impression that their drama director provoked an unfounded controversy. What they don’t know is that their principal and superintendent assert that LGBTQ life is unsuitable for families to see, that their parents might be “afraid” of “small kids” seeing gay relationships even in a broadly comic setting, and that there are concerns about attendance at such a show because the material is “risque.” The students also don’t know that their principal believes that LGBTQ representation might force some of them to make decisions about their personal beliefs, which is presumably part of education and maturation. There are important lessons still to be taught in South Williamsport, but only if the school administration and the community learn them first.

Hear hear.

Read more opinion from Mark Shenton

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