My son’s school district has taken the unprecedented step of cancelling a University of Texas graduate student play based on the story of two real-life male penguins who parented an abandoned egg at the Central Park Zoo.

Photo credit: Paul Mannix

Emily Freeman’s play, And Then Came Tango, was performed for second graders at Lee Elementary in Austin, Texas, on October 16. According to the Daily Texan, the principal at Lee expressed concern over the content, and Austin Independent School District moved to suspend and later cancel the play’s tour of other Austin elementary schools.

As an LGBT parent who interfaces with AISD almost everyday, I can’t say I was surprised. Consider this:

  • According to the American Library Association, the children’s book And Tango Makes Three (based on the same penguin couple) was the fourth most frequently challenged book in the U.S. in the first decade of the 21st century.
  • From the Briggs amendment to Prop 8 and beyond, right-wing activists have successfully associated LGBT equality with “teaching homosexuality in schools.” Anyone who has studied this history can tell you that the specter of innocent school children tainted and traumatized by queer sex has been one of the right’s most potent weapons.
  • The AISD Student Handbook contains a nondiscrimination clause that includes sexual orientation. However, as far as I can tell, elementary school teachers and administrators do not receive training on how to create an LGBT-inclusive learning environment that would support the spirit of the policy.
  • When it comes to LGBT families, I would be willing to bet that Texas elementary educators don’t know what they are allowed to say about family diversity or whether AISD would back them up if they included LGBT families in their lesson plans. Conservative demagogues foster these fears when they refer to same-sex marriage as “illegal” activity. Consider this quote in the Austin American Statesman from a group called Texas Values:

“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,” Saenz said.

(Not to belabor the obvious, but there’s a difference between something that lacks legal status and something that can get you arrested. Same-sex lovin’ hasn’t been illegal in Texas since Lawrence v. Texas.)

  • Finally, AISD is experiencing a serious budget crisis in a state where Rick Perry and right-wing legislators control the purse strings.

Given all of this context, I would have been astonished if And Then Came Tango had moved smoothly through AISD elementary schools. However, I was still disappointed that the play was cancelled with so little public soul-searching about the district’s responsibility to create an LGBT inclusive environment.

If you are in Austin, I hope you will ask the district to honor the spirit of its nondiscrimination policy. The main number for the school district offices is 512-414-1700. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen is at The Board of Trustees office is at 512-414-1704 or A complete list of current board members is here. (Incidently, Jayme Matthias, AISD’s first openly gay board member, will begin his term in 2013.)

You can also take your children to see And Then Came Tango this weekend. There will be several free performances at UT’s Oscar G. Brockett Theatre.

h/t Dana Rudolph at Mombian for the link to the ALA and the AISD contact info.