Gay ‘30 Rock’ actor’s anti-bullying talk for students cancelled by Pennsylvania school board due to his ‘lifestyle’

Maulik Pancholy’s speech at a middle school in Pennsylvania cancelled after school board vote
Maulik Pancholy’s speech at a middle school in Pennsylvania cancelled after school board vote

Actor, author and activist Maulik Panchol says he has been “incrediby moved” by the outpouring of “solidarity, love, and support” after his appearance at a Pennsylvania highschool was cancelled by the institution’s board over concerns about his “lifestyle”.

Mr Pancholy – who is gay – was supposed to host the anti-bulling event in May at Mountain View Middle School in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania — until the Cumberland Valley School District school board voted unanimously to pass a motion to cancel it on Monday, the New York Times reported.

“He labels himself as an activist who is proud of his lifestyle and I don’t think that should be imposed on our students,” said school board member Bud Shaffner, according to the outlet. Kelly Potteiger also expressed concern that the activist would mention his books, which feature LGBTQ+ characters.

She told the board that “it’s not discriminating against his lifestyle, that’s his choice. But it’s him speaking about it. He did say that that’s not the topic, but that’s what his books are about.”

In a statement shared with The Independent on Thursday, Mr Pancholy questioned why the school board was “afraid” of his appearance and the promotion of his books which, he said, aimed to build empathy and promote inclusion.

“My heart goes out to the entire Mountain View Middle School community, and particularly to the students,” the statement read. “Both of my books... are stories that reflect the full, complicated, and wonderful lives of middle school students.

“As a middle schooler, I never saw myself represented in the stories around me. I couldn't find books that featured South Asian-American or LGBTQ+ characters. They didn't exist. And when I set out to write my own novels so many years later, I was still hard-pressed to find those stories. It's why I wrote my books in the first place. Because representation matters.”

He continued: “When I visit schools, my ‘activism’ is to let all young people know that they're seen. To let them know that they matter.

“When I talk about the characters in my books feeling ‘different,’ I’m always surprised by how many young people raise their hands - regardless of their identities and backgrounds - wanting to share about the ways in which they, too, feel different

“That’s the power of books. They build empathy. I wonder why a school board is so afraid of that?”

Mr Pancholy added: I hope that every single student at MVMS is receiving that message of support and love. That you know that regardless of who you are, you belong. To each of you: I see you. I appreciate you. You matter.”

The school board’s decision to cancel on Monday sparked a major backlash, with some describing it as “shameful”. A petition to reinstate the anti-bullying talk was created.

The petition’s creator, Trisha Comstock, who identified herself in the petition’s description as a member of the Cumberland Valley School District community, said she was “deeply saddened” by the school board’s decision to cancel the discussion, which she said “was made solely because he is openly gay.”

She told the newspaper that her children had gone to Mountain View Middle School.

Ms Comstock said online that the assembly’s cancellation “sends a harmful message to our students - that being different is something to be ashamed of or hidden away.” As of Thursday afternoon, the petition had garnered more than 2,000 signatures.

“It is imperative that our kids learn about diversity from an early age,” Ms Comstock said in a statement to The Independent. “The decision made by the school board sends the message that being different is something to be ashamed of – and that has likely already caused harm to some of our students. To have someone with Maulik’s life experiences would have been inspirational for our kids.”

Beyond being an actor in 30 Rock and Phineas and Ferb, Mr Pancholy has penned children’s books and also served on President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which grew into the nonprofit Act To Change. He leads the nonprofit, which aims to fight bullying in schools.

The Independent has reached out to a representative for Mr Pancholy, Ms Shaffner, Ms Potteiger, the school board president and the middle school’s principal.

Mr Shaffner told the Times that his comment about the actor’s “lifestyle” concerned his activism. “The fact that he is a self-proclaimed political activist is what we object to,” the school board member told the outlet.

Ms Comstock objected to this characterisation, telling the outlet the board members “cloaked” the assembly “as ‘We want to keep politics out of school’ when they clearly knew it had nothing to do with politics.”

She added that the community is “outraged” because “this isn’t who we are.”