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Pennsylvania School District bans Maulik Pancholy

“This is blatant homophobia,” said Kunal Mukherjee, author of “My Magical Palace.”

Actor and writer Maulik Pancholy is shown at a book signing in New York in 2022. / (Lia Chang photo, courtesy of Maulik Pancholy)

Popular Indian American gay actor and writer Maulik Pancholy has been banned from giving an anti-bullying speech at a school in Pennsylvania, because of his “lifestyle.”

Pancholy was scheduled to speak May 22 at the Mountain View Middle School in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. However, at an Apr.15 meeting of the Cumberland Valley School District, Kelly Potteiger, a newly-elected board member who is also a member of the conservative organization Moms for Liberty, brought up Pancholy’s event and said she was against it.

The actor, best known for playing the hyper-attentive personal assistant on 30 Rock and for his voiceovers on the animated series Sanjay and Craig and Phineas and Ferb, has written two young adult novels. Both books, “Nikhil Out Loud,” and “The Best At It,” feature teen protagonists coming to terms with their sexuality. “The Best At It” was banned from Florida and Texas classrooms.

Pancholy is also the founder of the nonprofit anti-bullying organization Act To Change.

At the school board meeting, Potteiger said she was uncomfortable with the possibility that Pancholy might discuss his books. “It’s not discriminating against his lifestyle, that’s his choice, but it’s him speaking about it,” Potteiger sad. “He did say that’s not the topic of his speech, but that’s what his books are about.”

“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. The school board voted 8-0 that same evening to cancel Pancholy’s anti-bullying event.

In a statement posted to his Instagram and Facebook page, Pancholy said he heard of the school board’s decision via social media. “My heart goes out to the entire Mountain View Middle School community, and particularly to the students,” he said. 

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

Several parents in the Cumberland Valley School District have started a petition drive to reinstate Pancholy’s appearance.

Aruna Rao, founder of Desi Rainbow Parents and Allies, told New India Abroad she was outraged by the school board’s censure of Pancholy. “It is really disappointing to me that a mainstream actor is being objected to. Maulik is using his fame to bring support to very vulnerable young people who need it. He is is no way extreme; young, queer, trans kids see a good role model in him.”  Desi Rainbow provides a safe space for the South Asian American LGBTQIA community. 

Rao noted that the censuring of Pancholy comes shortly after the brutal death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old non-binary student in Oklahoma, who was brutally beaten to death at school. “With the school board’s action, we’re sending the message to kids that being queer or trans is wrong. And if the school board is saying it’s wrong, the message students are getting is that it’s okay to bully trans kids,” she said.

“Gay people of color are largely invisible. Our queer and trans identities are largely erased,” said Rao, adding that the visibility of Pancholy is important to the community. “I hope they invite him back. And I hope other schools will invite Maulik to speak,” she said.

Kunal Mukherjee, author of the seminal novel “My Magical Palace,” which explored a young India boy’s journey in coming to grips with his homosexuality, said the school board’s ban was “blatant homophobia.” “Bullying is one of the main reasons why kids today are having such a tough time at school. Kids commit suicide because they have no one to turn to when they are being bullied,” said the writer, whose work is being adapted for the screen.

“Bullies target anyone who is perceived to be different,” said Mukherjee. “It is absolutely outrageous that someone who wants to talk about bullying is being canceled.”
“The school board has missed a good opportunity. They will have the blood of children on their hands,” Mukherjee stated.
 

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