A Texas High School Canceled A Play About Hate Crime Victim Matthew Shepard

Shepard's mother, who says she witnessed numerous attempts to cancel the show in recent years, commented on the cancellation.

A Texas high school has canceled its spring production of “The Laramie Project, a play about the aftermath of the 1998 vicious murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming.

Timber Creek High School administrators emailed parents on Friday to say that the play would be canceled but did not provide an explanation, according to The Dallas Morning News. The email said the school was working on “an alternative production opportunity.”

“We understand that it is unusual for a production change like this to take place. Students will still have an opportunity to read, discuss, and analyze the play during the school day,” the email read.

Bryce Nieman, a spokesperson for Keller Independent School District, told the outlet that the decision to “move forward with another production” was “made by many stakeholders.” Nieman noted that the Fort Worth school wanted to promote theater productions that create “much excitement from the community” like “Mary Poppins” and “White Christmas.”

The district did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

“The Laramie Project” first debuted in 2000, two years after Shepard’s murder, and has been performed by high schools around the country to help facilitate conversations about violence and hate toward the LGBTQ+ community.

Shepard was a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming when he was brutally attacked and tied to a fence, where he was left to die.

His death, which has been memorialized as one of the most egregious anti-gay hate crimes, helped fuel a fight to expand federal hate crime legislation in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2009, then-President Barack Obama enacted the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which broadened federal hate crime law to include gender, gender identity, disability and sexual orientation as a basis for prosecution.

A memorial for Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998.
A memorial for Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998.
Evan Agostini

After the play was canceled last week, Timber Creek High School students and alumni started a petition to urge the school to allow students to perform “The Laramie Project.” The petition had over 2,100 signatures as of Tuesday evening.

“As a queer student in this show, I am absolutely livid that this has been canceled not once, but TWICE,” wrote one current student on the petition’s website, noting that this is the second time the high school has canceled a production of “The Laramie Project.” “KISD has been continuously pushing their anti-lgbtq agenda these past few years and it’s hurtful and uncalled for.”

Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard and the president of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said she has witnessed numerous attempts to cancel the show in recent years.

“My heart is broken when people still refuse to see how important this work is,” she told The Dallas Morning News. “It might scare some kids. And it might wake some kids up. And it might make kids want to make change — all of those things. And they have the power to do it.”

The canceling of the show comes just days after news broke about the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old transgender student who died one day after they were attacked and beaten in a school restroom in Owasso, Oklahoma.

This isn’t the first time Texas’ increasingly anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has seeped into school theater productions.

A school district in Sherman, Texas, temporarily barred Max Hightower, a transgender high school senior, from playing the lead male role in his school’s production of “Oklahoma!” in November. The school, which removed several other students from the play because of their gender identity, told parents that it would only cast students “born as females in female roles and students born as males in male roles.”

But after national media put Sherman High School in the spotlight, administrators walked back their decision and put on the show as originally cast.

Republicans in Texas pushed and passed at least seven laws targeting LGBTQ+ people last year, including laws that banned LGBTQ+ people from accessing gender-affirming care, and transgender athletes from competing in collegiate level sports, as well as measures that restricted students from being able to learn about LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and State Attorney General Ken Paxton, both Republicans, have come under fire for trying to investigate families of transgender youth who help their children access gender-affirming care. LGBTQ+ advocates recently urged the United Nations to look into possible human rights violations in the state.

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