UNITED STATES NEWS

Angst over LGBTQ+ stories led to another canceled show. But in a Wyoming town, a play was salvaged

Jan 19, 2024, 12:12 AM

Erica Biggs puts on makeup before performing in “The Bullying Collection” at Wheatland High Sch...

Erica Biggs puts on makeup before performing in “The Bullying Collection” at Wheatland High School in Wheatland, Wyoming on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024. School officials canceled the middle school play in part because it mentioned a gay character. The anti-bullying play was nonetheless performed under private sponsorship. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

WHEATLAND, Wyo. (AP) — Oliver Baez spent two months rehearsing a scene for a school play in which his character confronts another student about bullying a gay student who takes his own life.

After much preparation, the 12-year-old’s small scene turned into a big problem among school officials in Wheatland, Wyoming. At the last minute they canceled the anti-bullying play, saying it did not conform to school values and leaving the young cast without a stage.

“It was awful,” Baez said. “For the school to cancel it, it’s like saying that ‘LGBTQ should not be included in a society.’ Which is really awful and cruel.”

Twenty-five years after a watershed moment for the gay rights movement — the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student in a university town not far from Wheatland — the canceled performances of “The Bullying Collection” show how far the LGBTQ+ community still has to go to gain acceptance in Wyoming and elsewhere.

Wyoming is one of just two states without a hate crimes law; South Carolina is the other. Libraries around the country are facing community pressure to pull children’s books with LGBTQ+ stories, drag shows have been banned in some places and a University of Wyoming sorority was sued for admitting a transgender woman.

Meanwhile, Wyoming lawmakers are preparing to consider a bill this session that would strictly define gender as one’s biological sex at birth, restricting the lives of trans and nonbinary residents.

Located on the eastern Wyoming plains, Wheatland is a small farming and ranching community with about 3,500 residents. There are few restaurants, no department stores — not even a local Walmart — and few performance venues besides Wheatland High School.

A local theater group, the Platte County Players, has permission to perform there and salvaged the rights to the play and sponsored the performance a month later at the high school, as originally planned.

The students performed last week before a small gathering of people who braved icy roads and subzero temperatures to see the delayed show. But if they still grow up to have bad feelings about the whole thing, they would have fair reason.

Community apathy, combined with snowy weather and extreme cold, made for a sparsely attended performance. Only about 50 people showed up, including half a dozen LGBTQ+ advocates and allies from Cheyenne, 70 miles (110 kilometers) away.

Parents were thrilled to see the play ultimately performed after weeks of practice and then delay. It was sad the principal couldn’t stand up for what was right and got misguided by “old mindsets,” Oliver’s mom, Cassie Baez, said in an email.

In a changing world, such limited mindsets are harmful for children after they grow up and venture away from small-town life, Cassie Baez added.

“As a kid who has been bullied, Oliver knew this was important. So he was sad and even mad that the school still wasn’t backing him on a very important topic,” Cassie Baez wrote.

The principal had the backing of school district leadership, however.

“The board supports the administration,” school board chairperson Lu Lay said in an emailed statement, citing zero “negative” comments from the public on the cancellation decision.

To the district’s superintendent, John Weigel, the play seemed more appropriate for high schoolers than middle schoolers. He said he hadn’t seen the play himself but heard from the principal that it confused some kids and some middle school teachers supported cancelation.

The play featured 10-minute skits about bullying, including politicians and parents belittling one another and a teen being teased for carrying tampons at school. It also touched on a wide range of topics, including the risk of suicide for LGBTQ+ youths and students describing what it’s like to experience a school shooting.

For school administrators, a scene in which a student eulogizes another student who killed himself was especially problematic. Baez walked onto the stage from the audience to chastise the girl for not mentioning the boy was gay and how she had participated in bullying him.

“In my view, a play is supposed to be entertaining, that’s why I go,” Weigel said. “It seems to me this is more of a kind of, stir up some social issues, maybe, instead of kind of like being more entertaining.”

When he canceled the show, Principal Robert Daniel worsened the sting by giving each cast member a $5 gift card to a Maverik convenience store, along with an apology letter saying they had done a “great job.” Daniel did not return phone messages seeking comment.

One student tore up the letter and gave the card back. Another, Erica Biggs, 14, who played the role of the main bully opposite Baez, described the principal’s gesture as demeaning after all of their hard work.

“We all kind of took it like they were trying to bribe us to feel better and not be mad about the play. But it didn’t really help,” Biggs said.

Among attendees Friday night was Sara Burlingame, director of the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Wyoming Equality, who drove from Cheyenne to show support.

“They’re doing exactly what we hope all students would, which is take very seriously how bullying affects their peers,” Burlingame said. “The irony is the people who are supposed to be their exemplars become their bullies.”

This isn’t the first time kids in Wheatland have dealt with this. Just last spring, a high school performance of “Mean Girls” was canceled and the same local theater group stepped in to help produce the show to a full house.

A decade earlier, the school board voted 4-3 to take down banners that read “No Place for Hate” in schools, because the Gay and Lesbian Fund of Colorado was among the sponsors of the campaign.

“Here we go again,” said Jeran Artery, a former Wyoming Equality director who grew up in the town. “If there’s anything in Wheatland that has any kind of resemblance to any kind of association with the LGBTQ movement, it’s like, ‘This must come down immediately. Our kids must not see this.’”

More than three decades ago at the high school, Artery practiced for the play “The Lion In Winter,” which was canceled over the existence of one gay character.

“Just because there was a reference to homosexuality, there was an uproar in town, letters to the editor and things. And the drama director said, ‘This is not worth the hassle, I’m just going to cancel the play,’” Artery recalled.

Yet some parents said they still weren’t sure why “The Bullying Collection” was canceled because school officials never explained the decision.

“I read it all through,” said Melissa Rukavina, whose two daughters were in the play. “Unless you’re super closed-minded, I don’t see why you would do that.”

Drama coach Stephanie Bradley, who also attended the high school, challenged the decision.

“I was told that promoting the LGBTQ community is not in line with values of the school,” she said.

“Most people in this part of Wyoming don’t come out early,” Bradley said of LGBTQ+ teens on the state’s rural plains. “They wait until they can escape, where they’ll be safe. I just want it to be a safe place for everybody.” ___

This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

United States News

Associated Press

Texas police arrest suspect in abduction of 12-year-old girl who was found safe after 8 days

COLUMBUS, Texas (AP) — Police in Texas have arrested a man suspected in the disappearance of a girl who was missing for eight days before she was safely located. The 27-year-old Houston man was charged with evading authorities after he attempted to flee from officers on Friday, the Columbus Police Department said in social media […]

4 hours ago

FILE - A voting sign is seen near a voting center at Croft Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2024, in Sparta...

Associated Press

A chunk of Republican primary and caucus voters say they wouldn’t vote for Trump as the GOP nominee

WASHINGTON (AP) — A small but substantial chunk of Republican primary and caucus voters say they would be so dissatisfied if Donald Trump became the party’s presidential nominee that they would not vote for him in November’s general election, according to AP VoteCast. An analysis of the data shows that many of those voters were […]

4 hours ago

Prison psychological specialist Christine Ransom, right, leads a group session for inmates, Dec. 14...

Associated Press

Prisoners with developmental disabilities face unique challenges. One facility is offering solutions

ALBION, Pa. (AP) — “You are the Lighthouse in someone’s storm,” reads the message above a mural of a sailboat bobbing on ocean waves under a cloud-studded azure sky. It’s an unexpected slogan for a prison wall. On a nearby door painted deep blue, a bright yellow Minion character offers “Ways to say hello,” lists […]

6 hours ago

FILE - Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., celebrates with his supporters af...

Associated Press

Iowa Democrats were forced to toss the caucus. They’ll quietly pick a 2024 nominee by mail instead

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — There’s a lot less fanfare for Democrats in Iowa picking their presidential nominee this year, and it’s not only because Democratic incumbent Joe Biden is in the White House. Instead of congregating for caucuses, a one-night spectacle where community members publicly signal their support for a candidate, Iowa Democrats headed […]

10 hours ago

Kylie Moreland, the Monroe County Elections Supervisor poses in her office in Bloomington, Ind., Tu...

Associated Press

An Indiana county hires yet another election supervisor, hoping she’ll stay

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — An Indiana county lost its top election official nearly every other month over the last year after a longtime supervisor resigned following a counting error in the November 2022 tally. Voting advocates hope fears of a rocky election year will ease now that Monroe County has named a supervisor who is […]

10 hours ago

Christiane Keyhani, program coordinator of Hui O Ka Wai Ola, fills up the bucket to test water qual...

Associated Press

In Hawaii, coral is the foundation of life. What happened to it after the Lahaina wildfire?

Abraham “Snake” Ah Hee rides waves when the surf’s up and dives for octopus and shells when the water is calm. The lifelong Lahaina, Hawaii, resident spends so much time in the ocean that his wife jokes he needs to wet his gills. But these days Ah Hee is worried the water fronting his Maui […]

10 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s 1 way to ensure your family is drinking safe water

Water is maybe one of the most important resources in our lives, and especially if you have kids, you want them to have access to safe water.

...

Fiesta Bowl Foundation

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade is excitingly upon us

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe is upon us! The attraction honors Arizona and the history of the game.

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Avoid a potential emergency and get your home’s heating and furnace safety checked

With the weather getting colder throughout the Valley, the best time to make sure your heating is all up to date is now. 

Angst over LGBTQ+ stories led to another canceled show. But in a Wyoming town, a play was salvaged