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Ohio students say school canceled play over gay character

The high schoolers are raising money to put on an independent production of "She Kills Monsters" next summer.

A high school in Ohio canceled a student play after some local residents objected to a gay character, according to students and local news outlets.

Hillsboro High School in Hillsboro, about an hour east of Cincinnati, reportedly canceled the scheduled production of "She Kills Monsters" on Thursday after weeks of rehearsals.

School administrators told students that the cancellation was due to the presence of a gay character, CBS affiliate WKRC-TV reported.

The dramedy, written by Qui Nguyen, tells the story of Agnes Evans, whose parents and younger sister, Tilly, are killed in a car accident. In an effort to feel closer to Tilly, Agnes plays her sister's favorite role-playing game, "Dungeons & Dragons." She finds out that, in the game, Tilly had a girlfriend.

A representative for Hillsboro City Schools did not respond to NBC News' request for comment, but Superintendent Tim Davis told WKRC on Friday that “the fall play has been canceled this year because the play was not appropriate for our K-12 audience.”

Davis issued a more detailed statement to news outlets Monday, adding that the play contained "homophobic slurs" and other "inappropriate language."

“This production is recommended for ages 12 and older due to the language and mature content,” he said, according to the Times-Gazette, a daily paper in Hillsboro. “As a district, we based our decision on the play’s use of inappropriate language, profanity, homophobic slurs, sexual innuendos and graphic violence."

Parents of students who were involved in the play told WKRC that the decision came a week after a local pastor and other parents confronted the play's directors about the content.

They said that Jeff Lyle, the pastor of the Good News Gathering church, pressured the school to cancel the play.

Lyle denied that accusation in an email. "I have had no contact with any school board members regarding this play, though I agree with their decision," he said.

He added that he was invited to the meeting with the play's directors by parents of a cast member who "expressed to me their concerns about allowing their child to be involved in this play due to its content." 

"I made no comments regarding the play during the meeting," he said. "After the meeting, I did advise the directors that potential audience members should be warned regarding the nature of the content of this play, i.e. a parental advisory warning."

What worried him about the play, he said, is that "From a Biblical worldview this play is inappropriate for a number of reasons, e.g. sexual innuendo, implied sexual activity between unmarried persons, repeated use of foul language including taking the Lord’s name in vain."

In his statement Monday, Davis responded to accusations from parents that Lyle requested the play be canceled.

"I have not had any contact or communication with Mr. (Jeff) Lyle or any other religious entities concerning the characters in, or the production of, this play," he said, according to the Times-Gazette. "They had zero influence on this decision. This decision was made after the administration read through the script."

He apologized to students for the time they spent on the play.

“Future plays and productions will be read and approved by the administration before we hold any auditions," he said in Monday's statement. "I would also like to apologize to the entire community for any stress or division this may have caused.”

Some students who were involved in the play have condemned the administration's decision. Hillsboro High junior Chris Cronan, who had a major part in the play, told local ABC affiliate WCPO-TV that the administration sent a message to students.

“It felt like we had just been told, ‘Screw off and your lives don’t matter,’” he said. “I am openly bisexual in that school and I have faced a lot of homophobia there, but I never expected them to cancel a play for a fictional character.”

He added to WKRC, “We worked very hard on this play — we had a lot of people in that school who are in the LGBT community.”

Zebadiah Pickering-Polstra, a former Hillsboro student whose two younger siblings were in the play, started a GoFundMe on Saturday to help the students produce the play independently next summer. As of Tuesday, it had raised more than $16,000 — well over its $5,000 goal.

One person who donated wrote, in part, "Attention Hillsboro: Gay people exist! LGBTQ+ students deserve to have their stories told on stage also."

Since its debut in 2011, "She Kills Monsters" has become incredibly popular, particularly among high schools and colleges, with 652 productions of the play from 2013-2014, The New York Times reported last year.

It's been lauded for how it engages with themes related to grief, family struggles, adolescence and questions of identity.

Though public reviews of the play describe it as a positive portrayal of LGBTQ people, not everyone agrees.

Hillsboro High is actually the second Ohio school to cancel a production of "She Kills Monsters." Last month, Hudson High School, about 200 miles northeast of Hillsboro, also canceled the same play, though for different reasons.

Jennifer Reece, manager of communications and alumni outreach at Hudson City Schools, said the administration chose not to proceed with the play before students began rehearsals after receiving feedback from students, a parent and a staff member.

“In particular, concerns from the GSA (Gender Sexuality Alliance) club were that some students did not like the depiction of characters in 'She Kills Monsters,'" Reece said in an email. "This led to conversations with our counselors, administration and the drama director. It was decided that if the exact group we intended to feature and support in the production did not like how they were portrayed, it would be best to pivot to a different production."

She added that the district will be performing "The Crucible" in November instead.

Hudson City Schools is one of many districts across the country whose school board meetings have seen impassioned debate over critical race theory and LGBTQ-inclusive books and symbols, according to the Buckeye Flame, an LGBTQ news website based in Ohio.

During a Hudson Board of Education meeting Sept. 27, some Hudson residents read from LGBTQ-inclusive books and described them as pornographic "smut" that was a danger to children.

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