WHEATLAND, Wyo. (AP) — Oliver Baez spent two months rehearsing a scene for a school play in which his character confronts another student about bullying a gay student who takes his own life.
After much preparation, the 12-year-old's small scene turned into a big problem among school officials in Wheatland, Wyoming. At the last minute they canceled the anti-bullying play, saying it did not conform to school values and leaving the young cast without a stage.
“It was awful,” Baez said. "For the school to cancel it, it’s like saying that ‘LGBTQ should not be included in a society.’ Which is really awful and cruel.”
Twenty-five years after a watershed moment for the gay rights movement — the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student in a university town not far from Wheatland — the canceled performances of “The Bullying Collection” show how far the LGBTQ+ community still has to go to gain acceptance in Wyoming and elsewhere.
Wyoming is one of just two states without a hate crimes law; South Carolina is the other. Libraries around the country are facing community pressure to pull children's books with LGBTQ+ stories, drag shows have been banned in some places and a University of Wyoming sorority was sued for admitting a transgender woman.
Meanwhile, Wyoming lawmakers are preparing to consider a bill this session that would strictly define gender as one's biological sex at birth, restricting the lives of trans and nonbinary residents.
Located on the eastern Wyoming plains, Wheatland is a small farming and ranching community with about 3,500 residents. There are few restaurants, no department stores — not even a local Walmart — and few performance venues besides Wheatland High School.
A local theater group, the Platte County Players, has permission to perform there and salvaged the rights to the play and sponsored the performance a month later at the high school, as originally planned.
The students performed last week before a small gathering of people who braved icy roads and subzero temperatures to see the delayed show. But if they still grow up to have bad feelings about the whole thing, they would have fair reason.
Community apathy, combined with snowy weather and extreme cold, made for a sparsely attended performance. Only about 50 people showed up, including half a dozen LGBTQ+ advocates and allies from Cheyenne, 70 miles (110 kilometers) away.
Parents were thrilled to see the play ultimately performed after weeks of practice and then delay. It was sad the principal couldn't stand up for what was right and got misguided by “old mindsets,” Oliver’s mom, Cassie Baez, said in an email.
In a changing world, such limited mindsets are harmful for children after they grow up and venture away from small-town life, Cassie Baez added.
“As a kid who has been bullied, Oliver knew this was important. So he was sad and even mad that the school still wasn’t backing him on a very important topic,” Cassie Baez wrote.
The principal had the backing of school district leadership, however.
“The board supports the administration,” school board chairperson Lu Lay said in an emailed statement, citing zero “negative” comments from the public on the cancellation decision.
To the district's superintendent, John Weigel, the play seemed more appropriate for high schoolers than middle schoolers. He said he hadn't seen the play himself but heard from the principal that it confused some kids and some middle school teachers supported cancellation.
The play featured 10-minute skits about bullying, including politicians and parents belittling one another and a teen being teased for carrying tampons at school. It also touched on a wide range of topics, including the risk of suicide for LGBTQ+ youths and students describing what it's like to experience a school shooting.
For school administrators, a scene in which a student eulogizes another student who killed himself was especially problematic. Baez walked onto the stage from the audience to chastise the girl for not mentioning the boy was gay and how she had participated in bullying him.
“In my view, a play is supposed to be entertaining, that’s why I go,” Weigel said. “It seems to me this is more of a kind of, stir up some social issues, maybe, instead of kind of like being more entertaining.”
When he canceled the show, Principal Robert Daniel worsened the sting by giving each cast member a $5 gift card to a Maverik convenience store, along with an apology letter saying they had done a “great job.” Daniel did not return phone messages seeking comment.
One student tore up the letter and gave the card back. Another, Erica Biggs, 14, who played the role of the main bully opposite Baez, described the principal's gesture as demeaning after all of their hard work.
“We all kind of took it like they were trying to bribe us to feel better and not be mad about the play. But it didn't really help,” Biggs said.
Among attendees at the performance Jan. 12 was Sara Burlingame, director of the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Wyoming Equality, who drove from Cheyenne to show support.
“They’re doing exactly what we hope all students would, which is take very seriously how bullying affects their peers,” Burlingame said. “The irony is the people who are supposed to be their exemplars become their bullies.”
This isn't the first time kids in Wheatland have dealt with this. Just last spring, a high school performance of “Mean Girls” was canceled and the same local theater group stepped in to help produce the show to a full house.
A decade earlier, the school board voted 4-3 to take down banners that read “No Place for Hate” in schools, because the Gay and Lesbian Fund of Colorado was among the sponsors of the campaign.
“Here we go again," said Jeran Artery, a former Wyoming Equality director who grew up in the town. "If there’s anything in Wheatland that has any kind of resemblance to any kind of association with the LGBTQ movement, it’s like, ‘This must come down immediately. Our kids must not see this.’”
More than three decades ago at the high school, Artery practiced for the play “The Lion In Winter," which was canceled over the existence of one gay character.
“Just because there was a reference to homosexuality, there was an uproar in town, letters to the editor and things. And the drama director said, ‘This is not worth the hassle, I’m just going to cancel the play,’” Artery recalled.
Yet some parents said they still weren't sure why “The Bullying Collection” was canceled because school officials never explained the decision.
“I read it all through," said Melissa Rukavina, whose two daughters were in the play. "Unless you’re super closed-minded, I don’t see why you would do that.”
Drama coach Stephanie Bradley, who also attended the high school, challenged the decision.
“I was told that promoting the LGBTQ community is not in line with values of the school," she said.
“Most people in this part of Wyoming don’t come out early," Bradley said of LGBTQ+ teens on the state's rural plains. "They wait until they can escape, where they’ll be safe. I just want it to be a safe place for everybody.” ___
This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.