This column will talk about profanity, violence, homosexuality and religion.
So stop reading now if you don’t want to be offended, because my already piggy-stuffed inbox can’t handle any more mail and frankly, I don’t even have the time to blink and ignore you if you write something inane and hateful.
There’s been intensive news coverage lately of a situation at Valley High School in West Des Moines, IA. No, there hasn’t been a slaying of students or a major drug bust or lewd teacher-student conduct or a rape under the football field bleachers.
The drama club wants to put on a play.
Not a treasured chestnut like "Much Ado About Nothing" or "The Music Man," but one that has many parents all a-fluster.
"The Laramie Project."
You can almost smell the flustering from where you sit, can't you?
Now, before you coasties shake your heads and say, “Well, that’s life in the white bread, non-cultural, Bush-loving, Christian Coalition-supporting fly-over ‘city’ of Des Moines for you,” please note that at the majority of high schools and colleges where this play is performed or groups have attempted to stage it, protests and controversy follow. Kansas. Oregon. Arizona. Illinois. Pennsylvania. Hawaii. Michigan. California.
Canada. The United Kingdom. New Zealand.
No one place is truly immune to the controversy.
And frankly, that’s the point of the production. Ignorance is everywhere, ignorance kills, and thus, it must be stopped.
While many parents, students and even religious leaders stormed a West Des Moines School Board meeting in support of the production, a greater number came out against the “profanity and violence that shouldn’t be portrayed in a high school.”
Because all teenagers are gossamer-winged angels, with nary a spliced-tongued word screamed down the hall and through a slammed door when they can’t do something really, really important -- like go to the mall. There’s never been a student who taped a sign to someone’s back with “faggot” or “dyke” written on it. That scrawled “Susie Sucks Cock” with a heart-dotted “i” on the bathroom stall door? Written by the janitor. And certainly no one under 18 has ever used the f-word as an adjective.
Violence in schools? Surely you jest. Those athletic hazing rituals are hearsay. No student has ever been slammed up against the locker for lunch money or tripped when carrying a load of books. Metal detectors are at school entrances as a contemporary art installation.
Parents, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but your teenager? Generally a two-faced snot. The profile they show you and Grandma, even in the worst light, is nothing compared to the personality their friends -- and school associates -- know.
Most certainly there are exceptions -– and they’re the ones who want to star in this play, not prevent it from happening.
Think about it.
So the battle cry of “We must protect the children against vile words and visually deplorable acts!” is really a smokescreen for the ignorance and bigotry of some regarding homosexuality. And that is when a protest against a high school production of "The Laramie Project" becomes less about profanity and more about sticky hooey and a platform for religious rhetoric.
See? Going straight to hell. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.
Because everyone knows that if we talk about gay people, especially around teenagers, they will all jump on gay like it’s the new Gap catalog! Then everyone will have to either be gay or have gay or get things to match their gay and have gay ring tones and cavort with the gay Devil and post their gay-themed parties on YouTube and generally try to keep up with the Jones’ gay, and that in itself is such immense pressure.
Profane has a number of meanings. I didn’t say an obscenity once in the previous paragraph, yet I still find the implication of that whole ignorant yet common attitude vulgar.
Look at almost any religious tome and it explicitly explains the actions of the sinner and the resulting consequences. Why is this important? To scare us into being good!
Not exactly, but you get the idea.
So instead of a mythical allegory teaching us a life lesson, a real action on Earth occurred –- and we’re supposed to ignore it? Speaking strictly in terms of the religion I’m relatively most familiar with, I don’t recall not being gay a Commandment.
However, not committing murder -– I believe it ranks pretty high on that list.
Some of the protesters defend their position because they say the circumstances surrounding Matthew Shepard's death are less about his homosexuality and have more to with a drug deal gone bad. Perhaps. If that's their case, then the anti-drug message is a valuable one to hear as well: drugs will kill you, one way or another.
Whether some parents like it or not, there are some lessons that their children will learn only through other children. Good and bad. So how wonderful is it that instead of being apathetic wastoids drooling in front of Fuse’s “Pants Off Dance Off” (also known as "The Fun Stripping Show for Teens!") or laughing as some nutmeat pounds a nail into his forehead or humming along to Fergie’s “I act like a lady but I dance like a ‘ho,” a group of students want to take action by staging a play with a message.
Don’t want the profanity? The swear words can be modified.
Don’t want the violence? Dim the lights as the body is about to be struck again…and again.
Don’t want the message? Sorry. This isn’t a multi-millennia-old metaphor. This is life in the real world, and to truly do good work, you have to be brave enough act in the world as it is now.
Because sometimes, there’s more than one snake in the garden.
Approximately 90 Valley High School students auditioned for the play. Not the entire student body, but at least 90 students who believe it matters. Putting on "The Laramie Project" won’t bring Matthew Shepard back.
But maybe it will prevent a sinful repeat performance.
After two-day deliberation, the school board decided to let the production continue as planned.
Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
9.27.06 @ 2:23a
Way back in the dark ages when I was in high school, a student who was suspected of being gay was kidnapped and tortured by the entire school football team. There was no news coverage; there wasn't even an investigation - there wasn't even a SUSPENSION. The principal suggested to this child's parents that they remove him from the public school because "he brings this on himself."
I wish I was exaggerating.
My daughter is now a junior in high school and an officer in her school-supported GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance) and next weekend the GSA will have its own float in the homecoming parade.
The world is changing, slowly but surely. It's not always for the better, but sometimes it is. Kudos to this school board for not caving in to ignorance.
9.27.06 @ 7:02a
"If anyone tries to make you gay, stay away from them!"
I am greatly tickled by this idea of contagious gayness, or a gay recruitment drive. I imagine cold calls ("Hello sir, I am not trying to sell anything, we are just installing some display gays in your area, and was wondering, if price was not an issue, how many members of your family that you would like to turn gay") or stalls at the jobs fair, outlining the perks (Never wear bad shoes again!).
Children can be feral. In my old school, a girl had her locker broken into, and all her belongings slashed with a stanley knife. A letter was left behind warning that she was next. Another girl was put in a coma outside the science classrooms. Violence is as much an aspect of growing up as discovering that your shoes no longer fit, and that suddenly that person you hated for years looks really attractive and your heart goes all weird when they're in the vicinity. If the kids are old enough to understand the issues, and care enough to put this kind of show on, then I feel they should be allowed to do it. It's not as if they will be marching people to see it at gun point, or as if by not putting it on their sexless, peaceful eutopia will remain intact.
9.27.06 @ 9:16a
Any candles lit to diminish the darkness can't be all bad.
9.27.06 @ 9:28a
The most ridiculous "gay contagion" story I've heard was about a school in Texas that put a rule in place that only one girl could be in the bathroom at a time because otherwise, rampant lesbianism would ensue.
The small-mindedness is absolutely shocking.
9.27.06 @ 10:38a
What's shocking is how vague and poorly formed the debate is. Is anyone really arguing that a drama club needs to put on a play to point out that murder is wrong? Is anyone really arguing that this particular victim of a completely commonplace crime merits special examination?
Our schools suck, because of this type of emotional tripe and controversy. A lot of them once banned Tom Sawyer for chrissakes.
If the fuckin' play is any good, or has any artistic, instructive value, put it on. If it doesn't, don't put it on.
9.27.06 @ 10:41a
Is anyone really arguing that this particular victim of a completely commonplace crime merits special examination?
I'll argue that! The fact that hate crime against gays can be called "completely commonplace" is certainly worthy of examination. I imagine the play makes the larger instructive point that hating people because they're gay is a stupid and groundless thing, and doesn't just have a "murder is wrong" lesson.
My favorite line in this column is "keep up with the Jones' gay."
9.27.06 @ 11:25a
I was referring to murder as completely commonplace, not 'hate crimes' which is a special designation constructed for political convenience, and one that I choose to ignore because it is so ineptly, transparently contrived.
Every murder is hateful, and in public, as in 'public school', no one is special and no one motive is worse than any other. That's right, Hitler wasn't 'worse' than Pol Pot, but tell that to the Dept. of Education.
That's the problem here, this emotional guilt we have that makes us think Shepherd was special. And he might well have been special, to his friends and family, but not to the public. Not to society in general. Just another dead guy, but in this case being used to push a social agenda of some sort, however inarticulate.
9.27.06 @ 11:36a
No one is "just another dead guy."
Because all murders are equally hateful, we shouldn't try to stop any of them? We shouldn't try to educate, or build bridges, or break down prejudice? We should throw our hands in the air? Because that seems pretty defeatist to me.
9.27.06 @ 11:36a
one girl could be in the bathroom at a time because otherwise, rampant lesbianism would ensue.
Is this why you go to the bathroom in groups? Even those of you who aren't Carolina Panthers cheerleaders?
9.27.06 @ 11:37a
Dan, I'm not sure I follow you - can you please clarify?
I didn't know Matthew Shepard, but I was friends with Mark Wooley, a gay man in the wrong place at the wrong time whose body parts were found in an alley 10 hours after he left a "straight" bar with some "friends" he had just met. The case, as far as I know, is still unsolved.
His murder was as senseless as any other murder - but was it brought about because he was gay? No one will know for sure, but since hate crimes still exist and extreme bigotry still rallies, as with the dear "Reverend" Phelps, for example, we who don't approve of such attitudes need to lift up the rocks and expose every circumstance.
The school environment often does a piss-poor job reinforcing character and mind-expansion, mainly because they're afraid of lawsuits. Granted, they should have help from parents, but nevertheless, you can be certain that some students who will see this play will have an awakening of some sort.
9.27.06 @ 11:41a
It sounds to me that this play might have the "instructive value" of "don't hate people who are different" which is something 9 out of 10 high schoolers need to hear, over and over.
9.27.06 @ 11:55a
Here's a relevant parallel that shows you that this sort of idiotmindedness is not confined solely to high schools:
Opera canceled for fear of offending Muslims.
If you don't want to read the whole story, let me sum up: Berlin's Deutsche Oper has canceled their performance of Mozart's "Idomeneo" because it features a scene in which King Idomeneo displays the severed heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed, representing the king's disregard for any religion.
The director of Deutsche Oper decided to cancel the performance after "weighing artistic freedom and freedom of a theater ... against the question of security for people's lives."
It's not my intention to overpoliticize the discussion here, but the type of censorship that's being demonstrated here is just as bad as the some of the things done by the government in the name of homeland security. Folks who complain that the government is restricting their freedoms are just as guilty when they want to censor someone else, rather than risk offending one special interest group or another. It's still political correctness run rampant, just on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
9.27.06 @ 12:03p
To me, this is a sad example of lack of understanding and compromise. The opera is being canceled because they are afraid that muslims will react with violence instead of verbal discussion, not because they care about offending any of the religions represented. And, when it comes down to it, this is just a staging decision by the director not an original part of the opera. Why not cut the scene as generally offensive and over-the-top and let the show go on?
9.27.06 @ 1:16p
Because that's pc censorship to appease a minority?
And as far as what high school kids need to hear, over and over, my question is who decides that on behalf of the public? Again the word 'public' obfuscates a clear answer. I say they need to focus on math, English, and science instead of public service messages about diversity they won't believe in anyway.
And Trace, what I'm trying to say is this. The concept of 'hate' crimes is inane and if that's the only reason this play is important, that's patthetic. A crime is a crime. Justice is blind, remember, and motive is only used to prove guilt, not to emphasize heinousnes. So 'hate' in this case is just tacked on to increase the shock value, the passion about it, and in the law's case, the punishment on behalf of the lobby groups that support the notion. This guy is made special because he arbitrarily fell into a group that the fed has defined as special, unlike hundreds of other victims of the exact same crime.
But on the other hand, the guy's sexual pre-disposition is a piss-poor reason not to put on the play, if it has other value. That's all I'm saying. No one would cry foul if it was about JonBenet and someone opposed it, cause she's just a dumb kid, not a special representative of some needy group.
9.27.06 @ 2:11p
I say they need to focus on math, English, and science instead of public service messages about diversity they won't believe in anyway.
Whereas I believe that schools are being hampered by that very idea. There is more to a usable education than learning how to add and subtract so you can play the stock market, and more to English than learning how to spell and write (although those are two very important things). English, especially, can be rendered next-to-useless by people who insist that their children's education should be as detached as possible from the major cultural debates of the world now. How are our kids supposed to learn how to interpret and make balanced judgements without any material to work on?
9.27.06 @ 2:56p
Because that's pc censorship to appease a minority?
The ridiculous thing in this case is that the minority probably couldn't care less. The scene where King Idomeneo displays the severed heads of the gods of major religions should be considered equally offensive to Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and, um, I guess, Poseidonists.
But the whole article is about how non-Muslims fear Muslims might react... with, unless I missed it, not one quote from a single Muslim reacting to the decision. It's the majority's fear of the minority, not the anger of the minority itself, actually putting a stop to the opera.
9.27.06 @ 9:51p
I've seen The Laramie Project, and other than some so-called 'naughty language' that seems like Sesame Street compared to Deadwood, the play doesn't really steer the viewer toward one point of view. The general concensus is that killing someone because of sexual preference is wrong, but it doesn't really push the point. What it does is show the attitudes toward violence and homosexuality held by people in in Laramie, who represent a cross section of society.
A viewer may or may not consider some of the attitudes ignorant or wrong, or foolish depending on the attitude of the viewer. I'm sure Fred Phelps would view what I viewed as ignorant as being completely correct.
Education toward tolerance is important. Unfortunately the lesson the school gives when threatening to pull the play is one of intolerance.
Also Dan, Justice is supposed to be blind, and in many cases it is, but if America has learned anything in recent years about the legal system is, Justice peeks and judges on preconcieved notions more often than not. Even with juries the chance of a fair trial is clouded by the rulings of the judge. I have no faith in our legal system.
9.27.06 @ 10:00p
Someone should write an opera about this. Perfect tragicomedy.
9.28.06 @ 11:30a
They write operas about crazy things these days, like Frank Lloyd Wright, and bureaucracy. Might as well add this.
Tracey, do you know if they're modifying the profanity? I can understand parents protesting that as a legitimate concern. Yes, most kids swear like maniacs in everyday life, but if they're not allowed to swear in class, why should onstage be any different?
9.28.06 @ 1:14p
I don't think the profanity is *that* bad...and from what I understand, copywrite laws determine the guidelines by which the play is performed. But I can't see what a big deal it would make if the script called for the f-word and the actor just didn't say it. I mean, really.
How are our kids supposed to learn how to interpret and make balanced judgements without any material to work on?
Sarah - this is a great point. What do we as citizens expect our schools to do, exactly? Just provide daycare? This is very similar to the book-burning point someone made above - censorship and sanctioned art does not an intelligent and tolerant society make. I mean, I don't like some of Mapplethorpe's work, for example - but then again, I don't dislike most of it, either. To have the opporunity to make up my own mind is supposed to be an advantage of life and of living in this country as opposed to, say, China.
9.29.06 @ 5:21a
Tracey, I agree with you on learning to think for ourselves, however school systems do not encourage independent thought. In fact, since most of the students are underage, they don't get to choose. Students are deluded if they think they actually do make decisions for themselves. The school system chooses, and the students follow. When they hit college they can do as they please because they are paying for it, and if they fail then they are paying for it.
10.2.06 @ 10:33a
Interesting point. However, that's what I want to rally against. You don't "turn gay" at the convenient age of 19; you don't try drugs when you're paying your own rent; you don't get your ass kicked by your boss in the office conference room.
Everything our children learn from the beginning of their lives should cultivate them into becoming open, compassionate and knowledgable individuals. Not selfish brats with all the toys and attention - a mistake made by MANY people - but children who know how to balance rational thought with emotion.
We can dream, right?
10.3.06 @ 11:33a
The school system chooses, and the students follow.
Word. Tolerance can be innate, or even learned over time, but why does anybody make the obviously fallacious assumption that it can be taught? 30 plus years of wishful thinking later, all we've done is fall behind everybody in math and science and increased confusion about simplistic things like what caused 9/11. I'm sure stupidity is the cure for something.
What do we as citizens expect our schools to do, exactly? Just provide daycare?
No, we expect them to educate kids to think for themselves and become life-long learners, and there are some pretty well-founded taxonomies about how this can be done. None of them rely on the life-style coaching propaganda we're settling for, and they are all compromised by time donated to the nation's mascot social cause of the day.
10.21.06 @ 9:33p
Please tell us how you really feel. No really this is an incredible column. Now you just need to post it to: "The Gay Bashers of the World" club. They might be glad to no that gay is no longer contagious!
10.23.06 @ 9:44a
Thank you, dear. Now it's your turn to write one.