Newton North High School’s ToBeGLAD Day programming, which centers around LGBTQ+ awareness and celebration, sparked a protest and counterprotest due to the inclusion of a planned performance from drag performer Missy Steak.
The community’s response to protestors that called to cancel the planned performance demonstrated Newton’s inclusivity, according to Newton North principal Henry Turner.
“I do think that, largely, the community, you know, stands up for the values that we have in the schools and we have in the community—that we are an inclusive community,” Turner said. “I also am very proud of their leadership and also think it’s an attribution to the hard work that we do to prepare them here at school and with their families.”
Students at Newton North plan the programming for cultural diversity initiatives such as ToBeGLAD Day, according to Turner.
“It’s a really positive day and an opportunity for our students to put on an event,” he said. “These are student-run events—put on an event for their school in the same way that, you know, some of our cultural groups do, like our Black Leadership Advisory Council and our Asian Culture Club.”
The day is an opportunity for students to learn and to take leadership roles, Turner said.
“We believe in students having a lot of autonomy to be able to, to create and to take leadership roles,” he said. “And so at our school, these cultural days are, you know, an important tradition in our school where students organize and invite speakers and they put on an event. There’s a lot of learning that happens for them and an opportunity for them to, you know, to send a message of what they—who they are.”
The protestors said that the performance is not suitable for children, and that it imposes an inappropriate ideology on students, according to NBC Boston.
Kevin Ohi, a professor in the English department at Boston College who specializes in queer theory in literature, said claims of the performance pushing a certain point of view on attendees are misguided.
“It seems to me again, that there’s something disingenuous about claims of indoctrination,” Ohi said. “This is the same kind of language one saw about homosexuality you know 20, 30, 40 years ago—that people who were just trying to live their lives were indoctrinating people.”
Turner said he had a similar experience to the ToBeGLAD day protests when he worked at Lexington High School.
“I was a teacher in Lexington 20 years ago and you know, as gay marriage was being discussed, there were, you know, groups that were you know, that were, were protesting these kinds of events,” he said.
Protesting inclusive programming like Newton North’s perpetuates violence and is destructive to children, according to Ohi.
“I think the gesture is itself a kind of violence directed towards children and that it is depriving them of the ability to express things that they actually feel,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like one could ask them how they feel about these questions, sort of beginning to accuse sexual minorities of doing things to them.”
Ohi said the protestors should think about the impact of their actions on LGBTQ+ children who already feel they are unable to express their identities.
“I don’t know what’s going through their heads, but one thing they’re perhaps not thinking about is the effect that this has on LGBTQ+ children or people,” Ohi said. “I did see online the response of the superintendent in Newton and it seemed to me that she took that tact, saying she needs to think about those students also.”
Newton Public Schools parent Jess Wilson, who first became aware of Newton North’s ToBeGlad Day celebration this year because of the pushback, said she found the protesting of the events to be frustrating and unnecessary.
“One of the biggest things that was bothering me was the mischaracterization of the whole thing as a drag show,” Wilson said. “You know, it included a drag performance as part of a showcase, it was not a drag show … it’s just regular order of business at a school—showcasing diversity and, you know, celebrating self-expression.”
The presence of a drag performance at the celebration is a positive thing, rather than a negative one, she said.
“Drag is art, it’s creativity and self-expression, and the examination of societal roles and a send-up of all the harmful taboos,” Wilson said. “And if you’ve gone to a drag show, it’s a fabulous place.”
Wilson also emphasized the importance of educating people about drag, given its mischaracterization as inappropriate and sexual from dissenters nationwide.
“There’s a huge history of drag within that realm in entertainment, like, think of Mrs. Doubtfire and all that,” she said. “Drag is as wholesome and as American as apple pie … saying that drag itself is sexual is like saying that all comedy is raunchy because stand-ups in nightclubs tell dirty jokes.”
Advocating for programming such as Newton North’s ToBeGlad Day celebration ensures that all students feel safe and supported, according to Wilson.
“When parents and educators cave to or even help to ignite that bigotry and that fear, those kids who already felt isolated by their differences, then they have nowhere to turn,” she said.
Turner said the response from students and staff to stand up for principles of inclusivity made him proud.
“I think that it’s easy to articulate your values when things are quiet, but when things are, you know, when there’s challenging moments, that’s when you have to really stand up for your values, and I think that the school did,” he said. “I’m really proud of our students for taking the chance and putting on something like this, and I’m really proud of our students and staff for the way that they engaged that event.”