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Gay actor’s speech back on at Pennsylvania school after cancellation over his ‘lifestyle’

MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — A gay actor’s speech that was canceled over his “lifestyle” is back on at a Pennsylvania school after residents spoke out.

The Cumberland Valley School District’s board voted 5-4 Wednesday night to allow children’s book author Maulik Pancholy, who is gay, to speak against bullying during a May 22 assembly at Mountain View Middle School. The board voted after hearing from residents, including more than a dozen students.

The board on April 15 unanimously canceled Pancholy’s talk after a board member cited concerns about what he described as the actor’s activism and “lifestyle.” Some board members also noted the district enacted a policy about not hosting overtly political events after it was criticized for hosting a Donald Trump rally during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Some community members said the cancellation was ill-advised and sent a hurtful message, especially to the LGBTQ+ community, and Superintendent Mark Blanchard and other district leaders sent a letter to the board, faculty and staff asserting that Pancholy’s speech should have been allowed.

The education officials said they were not given “a real opportunity” by the board to answer questions or provide guidance about the event, which they said was aimed at reinforcing the importance of treating all people equally.

Pancholy, 48, is an award-winning actor, including for his roles on the television shows “30 Rock” and “Weeds,” and as the voice of Baljeet in the Disney animated series, “Phineas & Ferb.” He also has written children’s books and in 2014 was named by then-President Barack Obama to serve on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, where he co-founded a campaign to combat AAPI bullying.

Pancholy’s appearance was scheduled by the school’s leadership team, which each year selects an author to present a “unique educational experience for students,” according to the district.

At the April 15 meeting, school board members said they did not know what Pancholy would talk about, but one member said he didn’t “want to run the risk” of what it might entail.

“If you research this individual, he labels himself as an activist,” Bud Shaffner said, according to Pennlive. “He is proud of his lifestyle, and I don’t think that should be imposed upon our students, at any age.”

The Associated Press sent an email to Pancholy’s publicists Thursday seeking comment on the board’s decision to reverse itself.

In a statement posted on social media after the initial board vote, Pancholy had said that as a middle school student he never saw himself represented in stories, and that books featuring South Asian-American or LGBTQ+ characters “didn’t exist.” When he started writing his own novels years later, he was still hard-pressed to find those stories, he said.

“It’s why I wrote my books in the first place,” Pancholy wrote. “Because representation matters.”

Pancholy said his school visits are meant “to let all young people know that they’re seen. To let them know that they matter.”

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