Too Gay for Catholic School?

I woke up one morning last week to an invitation to a Facebook group alerting me that Notre Dame High School, a Catholic school in Lawrenceville, N.J. that happens to be my alma mater, had just cancelled a planned production of The Laramie Project after some parents complained that the play "promotes homosexual beliefs."

For anyone unaware, The Laramie Project is a play created by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project, in the aftermath of the brutal torture and murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming Student, in 1998. Kaufman and company traveled to Laramie, Wyo. several times over the course of a year and a half and interviewed everybody they could about the murder and the town's response. The play consists entirely of text from those interviews and news sources. HBO made a film of it in 2002.

I was urged by this Facebook group to write an email to the president and principal of the school, Barry Breen and Mary Liz Ivins, respectively, who were incidentally the principal and vice principal when I graduated many moons ago.

I thought I would share the entirety of my email here:

Dear Ms. Ivins and Mr. Breen,

I don't know if you remember me; I graduated from Notre Dame High School so very long ago, but I felt compelled to write you after I learned about the cancellation of the planned production of The Laramie Project.

There has been a precedent of other Catholic high schools doing productions of the play. Here is just one story of a production at a Catholic school in New York City, and there are others around the country that have realized that telling this story in no way flies in the face of Catholic teachings and values.

I just spent the morning rereading The Laramie Project, and it is a wonderful play. Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project, who developed and created the piece, worked very hard to represent the viewpoints of so many people in the community of Laramie, Wyo. The play tries to capture how a community comes together and collectively deals in a time of tragedy.

I read this quote from Mr. Breen: "In the minds of those who would misinterpret the play for their own political advantage, the play is about homosexuality and hence, in the eyes of the Church and in the eyes of those espousing an opposing agenda, controversial."

First of all, to say The Laramie Project is "about homosexuality" is so absurdly reductive, it's like saying The Help is about housekeeping or Beauty and the Beast is about bestiality. The worst part is, having known and respected you when I was a teenager, I don't even think that you believe the quotation yourself. To believe that this play is about homosexuality is a true misinterpretation for political advantage.

The fact that Matthew Shepard was gay is only part of the story -- an important part -- but that is not the sole focus of The Laramie Project. It is a play that shows not only how awful people can be, but how wonderful and supportive they can be, as well.

Especially in this time when bullying in middle schools and high schools has become such an epidemic and there have been so many teen suicides as a result, it seems almost irresponsible to run away from a piece of art that can teach such a valuable lesson.

My life at NDHS pretty much revolved around the performing arts department. I was in every play and musical that was possible in my four years there. It was a place of great pride, but also of solace.

I came to terms with my sexuality many many years ago, but when I was a student at Notre Dame, knowing that I was gay was a constant source of shame and self-loathing. I'd like to think that if I were able to see something (or perform in something) like The Laramie Project, it would have helped me very much to realize not only that there are other gay people in the world, and that the world can be a dangerous place when you're perceived to be different, but that there are people out there who would love and support me, as well.

These are all lessons that I learned after high school, but I can't help thinking how much more comfortable I could have been if I had been exposed to these ideas in a small way.

I understand that as a Catholic school, you're under no responsibility to teach about or support homosexuality, but as educators, it would be a disservice to simply ignore the fact that there are gay and lesbian students and faculty members there already. They are good people who will do great things in their lives.

It saddens me to think that my alma mater would allow a few ill-informed parents to bully them into derailing the teaching of some very valuable lessons through art, not to mention deny students the joy of performing in something they know in their heart is important and will have a lasting effect on their lives.

I know that this must be a difficult position to be in, both politically and personally, but I hope you are able to take the time to examine what is in your hearts and in the end make the tough decision to allow this conversation to be had.

Very sincerely,

Bill Augustin

Class of '94