Gay Kiss At Hartford Public High School Continues To Stir Reaction
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
October 20, 2011
HARTFORD —— When the fictional football quarterback shared a brief kiss with another male actor on stage in the Hartford Public High School auditorium, the sudden cacophony of cheers, screams and bits of dissent seemed to rocket to the roof.
Several hundred students witnessed the gay kiss last Friday afternoon, and a few dozen near the back got up and left the auditorium. Some wore the Owls' school football jerseys.
Their reaction would eventually be known throughout the country and beyond the Atlantic.
Among the students who stayed to watch the rest of "Zanna, Don't!" — an ironic musical in which homosexuality is not only accepted, but the norm — was a gay boy who wept at his seat because of the stark reality of his own world, said Adam Johnson, principal of the school's Law and Government Academy.
Another spectator was 15-year-old Jordan Spruielle, the Owls' starting quarterback.
This week, after a CBS News website wrote about the play following The Courant's story, news outlets such as The Guardian of London and The Huffington Post posted their own online versions, drawing more than a thousand comments from readers around the world. The blog Gawker went with the headline "Jocks Walk Out of Musical Over Gay Kiss."
The title of a blog post on NBCSports.com similarly began, "Football players walk out of school play …"
The controversy does not sit well with Spruielle, a sophomore in the Law and Government Academy who helped lead the Owls to a win against Manchester last weekend. The outcry over the musical has included calls and emails to the school system, mostly from conservative out-of-towners convinced of a homosexual agenda at the school.
Attendance for a second "Zanna" performance for students this Friday — reserved for Hartford High's freshmen and those in the Engineering and Green Technology Academy — is now considered optional, school officials said. The musical was organized as an anti-bullying initiative by Leadership Greater Hartford's Quest program in partnership with True Colors, a nonprofit group that helps lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
The self-described "fairy tale" is intended to expose prejudice.
Spruielle said Thursday that he had a few words for teammates who walked out. He believed that they had been disrespectful.
"I was like, you guys missed out on a good play," Spruielle said. The musical "just shows that everyone is different in this world. You have to accept people for who they are. … I know people who are gay. They're funny people. They are cool people to be around."
Sophomore Richard Jernigan, 16, a punt returner for the Owls and a law and government student, said he was "shocked" because until Friday he had never seen two guys kiss.
"Open your eyes up, because stuff is real," Jernigan said of the play's message. He stayed for the whole musical. As for those who did not, "it shows people's true character," he said.
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said the performance "hits on some core family values, so our students aren't all going to be in agreement." For those who choose not to watch or decide to "speak out, that reaction is appropriate," she said.
What matters, Kishimoto said, is demonstrating that "we can be respectful in our disagreement."
The first kiss between the play's Heartsville High quarterback — who is later exposed as a closet heterosexual — and the most popular boy in school, a gay chess champion, amounted to a second-long peck on the lips.
Later there were other same-sex kisses on stage, some bolder. A lesbian smooch was cheered among students. The actors were from area high schools and Trinity College.
The Family Institute of Connecticut, a conservative group that opposed gay marriage in the state, sent a mass email Monday with the subject "Forced Pro-Gay Indoctrination at Hartford Public High School," criticizing what it considered "an outrageous attack on parental rights." Principals of the nursing and law and government academies decided against requiring permission slips for the opening performance.
That won't be the case for Friday's show. Jack Baldermann, the executive principal of Hartford High who also heads the school's Engineering and Green Technology Academy, said that all the freshmen need an OK from their parents and that he expected more than half to attend. The sophomores, juniors and seniors in his academy can choose to opt out and work on assignments.
"We're not going to force them to come," Baldermann said, "for a lot of reasons. We don't want them to disrupt the performance for other people."
But Baldermann has told his students that he would like them there, explaining that "the most important lesson we can learn is to be compassionate toward each other."
I wish people knew what a great school this is in so many ways and how we're constantly working to get better," he said Thursday. "Part of that is talking about tough issues. It's not just algebra and history and English, as important as that is. … I mean, really, in this day and age — our students watch movies where people are killed and maimed, and they don't walk out."
Johnson, of the Law and Government Academy, said he has no regrets over the musical because of the conversations it has stirred at the school, where gay students have felt limited tolerance.
"We have a fundamental problem in this country of gay teenagers killing themselves," said Johnson, who has received emails from strangers in the past week, many in support. "And we absolutely have to intervene in order to help these kids to live a happy life."
The school system also received at least five phone calls to its welcome center and 15 emails as of Thursday morning, nearly all opposing the play, schools spokesman David Medina said. One email that Medina read was from a nun in Albuquerque, N.M. A single email in support was from a gay teenager in Massachusetts who thanked the district.
A man from a nearby suburb phoned with positive remarks, Medina said, an exception to the outside critics.
"Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama," Medina said. "We got one call from Ireland."
A free public performance of "Zanna, Don't!" is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday at the school, 55 Forest St. Those interested in attending or organizing the musical for their school or community group can may email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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