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Whatever Happened to ... the gay penguins?

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The gay penguins that ruffled feathers in Loudoun County school libraries and became the darlings of gay rights advocates and intellectual freedom fighters everywhere have taken to the stage.

A play that premiered in Fairfax this summer at the Hub Theatre is based on a controversial children’s book about Roy and Silo, the real-life male penguins who hatched and raised a chick together at the Central Park Zoo. The play chronicles their family life, their rise to stardom and, as one character describes it, “the bird-brained behavior they caused.”

The 2005 picture book about their unusual love story was pulled from general circulation in Loudoun schools in early 2008, after a teaching assistant at Sugarland Elementary complained about the book’s homosexual theme.

Despite recommendations by two review panels that the book should stay put, Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III decided to make it accessible only to adults. Bloggers cried censorship. Parents demonstrated at a school board meeting wearing penguin colors. The book was returned to shelves.

But the debate over “And Tango Makes Three” did not begin and end with Loudoun County.

The tale by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell has topped the American Library Association’s top 10 list of most frequently challenged titles for five years now, only once dropping to second place in 2009 (following “ttyl,” a young-adult novel written in instant-messaging shorthand, leading to complaints that it’s grammatically incorrect, among other concerns).

“This year, it is number one again,” said Barbara Jones, director of the office for intellectual freedom at the ALA. “I think the authors are thrilled.”

The controversy caught the attention of playwright Marc Acito, who intertwined the penguins’ story with that of two (heterosexual) hawks that made a nest on the ledge of a Fifth Avenue co-op for a reflection on modern love. A Loudoun County library volunteer named Chastity Wright is one of a few flighty humans in the cast.

The play, called “Birds of a Feather,” brings the two-toned penguins into full color. Silo, with his goggles, is partial to long swims and deep thoughts. Roy is a show-tune-loving nurturer who prefers “the unexamined life.”

Loudoun School Board Chairman John Stevens (Potomac District) said there are more copies of “And Tango Makes Three” in circulation since the 2008 stir, because several families, including his, donated them to libraries that did not yet have the title.

“That’s the real lesson here,” Stevens said. “If you hold something up and say it’s bad, it’s guaranteed to get a lot more attention than if it’s left there on the shelf.”

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