Texas School District Cancels Play About Gay Penguins

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It’s true: life imitates art. In an episode of Parks and Recreation (which NewsFeed certainly considers art), protagonist Leslie Knope received fierce backlash after she performed a “marriage” ceremony for two penguins — later realizing they were both male. Now, in Texas, same-sex penguins are also causing a stir.

The Austin school district has cancelled 10 scheduled performances of And Then Came Tango, a play that chronicles the real-live adventures of two male penguins who raised a baby penguin together in New York City‘s Central Park Zoo. Written by a University of Texas graduate student, the play had been performed for second-graders at Lee Elementary School in October before district officials suspended it, citing concerns about age appropriateness, the Austin American-Statesman reports.

Roy and Silo — the pair of Chinstrap Penguins that inspired the play — were given a fertilized egg a few years back and together raised the hatchling, whom zoo officials named Tango. Joined at the hip (er, wing) for years, these “gay” penguins made headlines prompting a lot of discussion about homosexuality in the animal world. But it wasn’t just in newsprint: the story of Roy and Silo entered the literary sphere in 2005 with the children’s book And Tango Makes Three. The picture book was aimed at young readers but encountered pushback from school districts and libraries across the country, which didn’t agree with the supposed depictions of homosexuality within its pages.

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And now, the stage version is facing similar criticism. Emily Freeman, the student who wrote And Then Came Tango, said her play about this penguin pair is “about different families” and meant to spread message of equality and love. Not everyone agreed that the play was appropriate for schoolchildren, however. “The subject matter communicated in the play is a topic that Austin ISD believes should be examined by parents/guardians who will discuss with their elementary school age children at a time deemed appropriate by the parents/guardians,” Greg Goodman, the school district’s fine arts director, said in a letter. In the past, the district has allowed performances of several University of Texas theater productions. This was the first one to be cancelled — much to Freeman’s disappointment.

“Throughout the play, the definition of family is extended beyond normative representations,” she said in a press release, adding that the narrative seeks to highlight the importance of “voicing your opinions and standing up for your beliefs, no matter how old you are.” She didn’t agree that the content could be seen as inappropriate for young children.

But plenty of Texans think the district made the right choice in banning the production.

“We define marriage very clearly in the state of Texas. So if you have a play that tries to push and promote a different marriage definition, which is clearly illegal, it leads students to ask questions about it, and it leads to the discussion of sex,” Jonathan Saenz, president of the conservative Texas Values group, told the Statesman.

It seems the decision to ban the play at Austin schools is final — but in the meantime, Freeman will put on several free performances, open to the public. Leslie Knope would be proud.

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