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First they tried protests of anti-gay bills. Then students put on a play at Louisiana’s Capitol

A group of students from a New Orleans high school staged a play they developed on the steps of Louisiana’s Capitol to protest a series of anti-LGBTQ+ legislative proposals. (AP Video by Stephen Smith)

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Ava Kreutziger was in high school English class last year when she heard about the passage of legislation that could affect LGBTQ+ students like her. She excused herself from class to go cry in the bathroom, and found two of her classmates already there in tears.

Those bills were vetoed, but similar proposals — now with a better shot of passing under a new Republican governor — would regulate students’ pronouns, the bathrooms they can use and discussions of gender and sexuality in the classroom, which opponents call “Don’t Say Gay” bills.

In the past, students at Kreutziger’s high school in New Orleans have held walkouts to protest anti-inclusion proposals. This year, a group of students tried something different: a play, based on their own experiences, performed on the steps of the state Capitol. Compared with a raucous demonstration, the students hoped a play could spark more empathy.

They have seen up close the mental health struggles of queer students, who were during the pandemic compared with straight students. For those involved in the play, the proposals before the legislature are a matter of life and death.

“I just hope they can see something in us that’s worth saving,” said Kreutziger, a 17-year-old senior at Benjamin Franklin High School.

For students who can feel like pawns in political and cultural fights playing out around the country, the play also offered an opportunity to regain a sense of power.

“It’s the deepest expression of who they are. And that part of it, knowing that you can create something beautiful, that can make change,” said Ariella Assouline, a program manager at the It Gets Better Project, an organization that supports LBGTQ+ youth.

Benjamin Franklin High playwriting class students perform their play "The Capitol Project" on the steps of the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday, March 27, 2024. In the past, students at the New Orleans school have held walkouts to protest anti-inclusion proposals. This year, a group of students tried something different: a play, based on their own experiences, performed on the steps of the state Capitol. Compared with a raucous demonstration, the students hoped a play could spark more empathy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Benjamin Franklin High playwriting class students perform their play “The Capitol Project” on the steps of the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday, March 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Benjamin Franklin High, a selective charter school, used part of a grant from It Gets Better to fund the production and hired Broadway director Jimmy Maize to help students develop a script. Maize is a member of the Tectonic Theater Project, best known for “The Laramie Project,” a play about the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard.

The students’ play, dubbed “The Capitol Project,” came together with just a few rehearsals on Saturdays and in the school’s elective playwriting course. They performed it on Wednesday, four days ahead of Sunday’s international Transgender Day of Visibility.

Students were jittery with nerves as they ascended the steps of the Capitol building, the tallest in the U.S. Facing the entrance, the teenagers shared their stories. Some were about the joy they felt when they learned about LGBTQ+ history in school, or about their parents’ acceptance. One student laughed about a plan concocted at the age of 12 to come out to family by kissing their best friend at midnight on New Years’ Eve.

Others spoke to feelings of despair and shame. In one scene, two students brought out a thick rope tied into a noose at one end. Jude Armstrong, 17, walked across it like a tightrope, legs wobbling.

Ava Kreutziger, a Benjamin Franklin High selective charter school student, rehearses along with fellow playwriting class students for their play "The Capitol Project" at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, Thursday, March 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Ava Kreutziger, a Benjamin Franklin High selective charter school student, rehearses along with fellow playwriting class students for their play “The Capitol Project” at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, Thursday, March 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

“What do you you say to a little kid who prays to the same God you do?” Jude, who is transgender, asked in another scene. “When they ask God how much longer until they’re allowed to be themselves?”

Bills targeting the rights of gay and trans people have topped conservative agendas in statehouses around the country, with state legislatures over the last two years considering hundreds of proposals affecting teachers and LGBTQ+ students.

Earlier versions of the Louisiana proposals were vetoed last year by the state’s Democratic governor. But with a new Republican governor and supermajority control of the legislature, there is a clear path to passage for the bills introduced this session.

Louisiana state Rep. Raymond Crews, a Republican who wrote that would ban schools’ use of a child’s preferred pronouns without parental permission, said the debate over pronouns is a distraction from learning that he hopes the bill will “relegate to the background.” He said it is misguided to adopt a students’ preferred pronouns if they don’t align with their gender at birth.

Benjamin Franklin High playwriting class students perform their play "The Capitol Project" on the steps of the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday, March 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Benjamin Franklin High playwriting class students perform their play “The Capitol Project” on the steps of the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday, March 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

“We can’t ultimately be responsible for people’s feelings,” he said.

As the students performed, legislators inside the Capitol were on the House floor debating a bill about car insurance. It appeared that only one lawmaker — state Sen. Royce Duplessis, a Democrat — stopped to watch the play for an extended time.

Royce said he is worried the bill will drive talented young people to leave the state.

“How do we expect kids to stay in a state like this when laws are being passed that basically say to them, we don’t care about you?” he said.

Jimmy Maize, guest artist deviser, guides playwriting class students for their play "The Capitol Project" at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, Thursday, March 21, 2024. In the past, students at the school in New Orleans have held walkouts to protest anti-inclusion proposals. This year, a group of students tried something different: a play, based on their own experiences, performed on the steps of the state Capitol. Compared with a raucous demonstration, the students hoped a play could spark more empathy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Jimmy Maize, guest artist deviser, guides playwriting class students for their play “The Capitol Project” at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, Thursday, March 21, 2024. In the past, students at the school in New Orleans have held walkouts to protest anti-inclusion proposals. This year, a group of students tried something different: a play, based on their own experiences, performed on the steps of the state Capitol. Compared with a raucous demonstration, the students hoped a play could spark more empathy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

In the production’s final scene, a mother and her child came forward for a dialogue. Eve Peyton, a marketing and communications coordinator at the school, spoke of how she struggled when her child chose a new name. It felt like they were rejecting a precious family gift. Eventually, Peyton realized “gifts can be outgrown.”

“I’m here to fight with them, every step of the way,” Peyton said.

She passed the mic to another adult, who said the same thing. The mic got passed again, and again. For a total of 49 times, while the performers looked on with tears streaming down their faces, adults and kids in the audience said the same thing: “I’m here to fight with them, every step of the way.”

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Associated Press writer Sara Cline contributed to this report.

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Lurye is the data reporter for 91ýƬ’ Education Reporting Network. She is based in New Orleans.