Pennsylvania school district cancels actor's speech over his activism and 'lifestyle'

MECHANICSBURG, Pa. (AP) — A Pennsylvania school district has canceled an upcoming appearance by actor and children's book author Maulik Pancholy after district leaders cited concerns about what they described as his activism and “lifestyle.”

Pancholy, who is gay, was scheduled to speak against bullying during a May 22 assembly at Mountain View Middle School in Cumberland County. However, the district's school board voted unanimously Monday night to cancel his talk after some members voiced concerns and others noted the district's policy about not hosting overtly political events, news outlets reported. The policy was enacted after the district was criticized for hosting a rally by Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign for president.

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.

While discussing the appearance at Monday night's meeting, school board members said they did not know what Pancholy's talk would be 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 board's vote sparked criticism from several parents, students and community members who called the decision “homophobic.” Some have started online petitions urging that Pancholy's appearance be reinstated.

In a statement posted on social media, Pancholy 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." When he talks about his characters feeling "different," he said he is always surprised by how many children of various identities and backgrounds want to share how they feel different too.

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