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After controversy, Texas school board says transgender student can sing in school musical

 Max Hightower, 17, poses for a portrait in a hotel in Denton on Nov. 9, 2023.
Azul Sordo
The Texas Tribune
Max Hightower, 17, poses for a portrait in a hotel in Denton on Nov. 9, 2023.

Update: The Sherman school board on Monday directed high school leadership to allow the production of "Oklahoma!" to proceed as planned before the school principal stripped trans student Max Hightower of his role, the Dallas Morning News reported. The board also insisted the original script — and not a "youth" version — be used. This ensures Hightower will have a solo. However, it's unclear when the show will be staged.

DENTON — Max Hightower was hooked on theater after watching the musical “Hamilton.” Then just 13, he begged his family to rewatch it immediately. Soon, he started every morning listening to the soundtrack.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, you can sing in a play, that's insane,’” said Max, who was already an active choir singer.

So, when Max, who is now a high school senior, was cast in a supporting role with his own solo in the Sherman High School production of “Oklahoma!” — a quintessentially American musical about love and statehood — he threw himself into the production.

But now it’s unclear whether Max, who is transgender, will get to sing as Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler. Through a whiplash of sudden policy changes about the gender of performers and public hand-wringing about the revered American musical’s content, Sherman school officials have effectively cast Max as the lead in a very different drama playing out in real life. It’s more akin to the civil rights fight of “Hairspray” than the love triangle in “Oklahoma!”

After Max was bumped from the chorus to the supporting role, the school pulled aside him and several of his fellow student thespians. High school administrators told students one by one that the play would be postponed and recast and that students could only play roles that match their sex assigned at birth.

After the initial decision garnered local and national headlines, the district on Friday recanted the gender policy. But the district also announced the school will now produce an “age appropriate” version of the play.

Only two versions of “Oklahoma!” are available from a firm that holds the licensing rights: the original and a “youth” version billed as an “adaptation for pre-high school students” that has content “edited to better suit younger attention spans.” In that version, the character Max was previously cast to play is now listed just as “The Peddler.” The run time of the show is one hour, compared to the original’s two-hour length.

"I think it's insulting. I think it's still targeting Max. I think they chose the version that would have Max in it the least," said Amy Hightower, Max’s mom.

The waffling about transgender students’ participation in a musical is the latest wrinkle in a national debate over trans rights, especially in public schools.

The fights, which have played out in school board meeting rooms and statehouses across the U.S., have largely focused on books in school libraries, access to restrooms and participation in sports. But Texas lawmakers earlier this year also banned trans kids from accessing puberty blockers and hormone therapy that leading medical groups have OK’d for children.

In Texas, decisions by school districts to enact strict gender policies and review the books available to students have made national headlines, including a new documentary podcast about the suburban Grapevine school district. Max’s family worries Sherman ISD’s handling of “Oklahoma!” has pushed the district in that direction.

“I didn't want us to be that,” Max’s father Phillip Hightower said. “I wanted us to show that we could stay somewhat progressive and look out for the needs of every kid.”

Sherman ISD, which has a student population of about 7,800, did not make any administrators available for comment, and the school board has not voted on any rules about student performers' gender assigned at birth.

One statement from the Sherman school district said “Oklahoma!” featured “mature adult themes, profane language, and sexual content.” Still, the show has been a staple production in high school theater departments for decades. That earlier statement also said that the policy about performers’ gender wouldn’t necessarily be applied to future shows.

“Sherman ISD values the diversity of our students and staff and knows this has been an especially difficult time for many of our students,” said a Friday statement from the district. “The circumstances revealed the need to implement a more formal review process for theatrical productions and scripts. Moving forward, the District will have a tighter review and approval process, and we apologize that this was not already in place.”

But that’s done little to appease Max’s parents.

“The superintendent and the administration is attempting to deflect blame,” Phillip Hightower said. “To deflect blame to the theater department, to the theater director, hell, I guess even to the school board that approved this a year and a half ago. Their non-apology sickens me."

 Amy and Phillip Hightower sit with their son Max Hightower.
Azul Sordo
The Texas Tribune
Amy and Phillip Hightower sit with their son Max Hightower.

Centuries of artistic precedence

LGBTQ+ activists and lawyers believe the Sherman district’s initial decision about gender in casting decisions is the first of its kind to intrude on arts. Theater, in particular, has a centuries-old tradition of bending gender roles. Shakespeare routinely cast men in female roles.

Max’s gender identity has not been a secret. He came out to his friends as trans in the eighth grade and to his parents a year later. Barring some bullying and occasionally misused pronouns, he is treated like any other 12th grader.

So when Max was told he could no longer star in his new role, he was taken completely off-guard.

“I know it's Texas, I know where we live, but not my school,” Max said. “There were so many queer kids in Sherman High school, I was like, ‘They wouldn't pass something like that because they knew how bad that would get.’”

Max was not the only student whose birth gender did not align with their role in the play, nor the only trans student involved. The school had a shortage of male actors, and so many students, trans and cisgender alike, had lost the opportunity to play the parts they wanted.

The now-abandoned policy is believed to be the first attempt in the state to restrict theater productions based on sex, but similar cases have occurred. In Fort Worth, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against a charter school after it created a policy stating students could only join choirs based on their assigned gender at birth.

Brian Klosterboer, ACLU attorney and chair of the LGBT Law Section of the State Bar of Texas, called Sherman ISD’s temporary gender policy a “very extreme and egregious example” of discrimination and likened it to the lawsuit in Fort Worth.

“This Sherman ISD decision unfortunately is an example of this extreme anti-transgender animus that we are seeing here in Texas and across the country,” Klosterboer said.

Klosterboer and Equality Texas communications director Johnathan Gooch both said that Sherman ISD’s rolled-back policy appeared to be a clear violation of Title IX, the civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on gender. In 2021, the Department of Education released a notice explaining that discrimination based on gender identity would violate Title IX.

Misconceptions about Texans’ acceptance

Gooch said the Sherman policy does not reflect what many Texans want from school leaders. Seventy-five percent of Texans support LGBTQ+ non-discrimination laws, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

“I think there are some misconceptions about what Texans generally want and expect from their school boards and their community leaders,” Gooch said.

In a rural city of 46,000 almost 70 miles north of Dallas, sympathy for LGBTQ+ issues in Sherman seemed sparse to the Hightowers — but not impossible. Amy, who is from Howe, felt that the fast-growing city could be a better place for Max than more rural areas nearby. Phillip thought the community could grow into what they needed.

Valerie Fox, founder of local LGBTQ+ nonprofit Grayson Pride, said the city is more accepting than it appears, but fear of public backlash prevents allyship from becoming public.

“We can get a lot of secret support, so we can get some money if we need to in a pinch,” Fox said. “They'll donate it to us, but they don't want to be on a sponsor banner. They don't want anyone to know.”

Fox started Grayson Pride because one of her children is gay and Fox didn’t see support for LGBTQ+ identities in Sherman. She said attendance has quadrupled since she started the nonprofit four years ago.

The Hightowers have considered moving out of state to where Max’s siblings live and where there is less concern over how Max would be treated, but it is no easy choice.

“I don't really want to move away from here,” Phillip said. “I want to change here.”

Max’s parents had kept his transition private, even from some family members, out of concern and fear. But after the district took away their child’s pivotal role, they went to Facebook and posted publicly about the experience. The response, they said, has been overwhelmingly and unexpectedly supportive.

“If I'd have known that we had all of the support and all those resources, we would have reached out so long ago,” Amy said.

Grayson Pride and several community members plan to attend Sherman ISD’s Monday school board meeting. The play’s postponement is not on the meeting’s official agenda.

After local broadcast station KXII reported on the play’s postponement, Max said the atmosphere at school has completely shifted. Students follow him around and have called him transphobic names. His parents pulled him from school and opted to stay in a hotel for the later part of the week.

“People were trying to follow me to the bathroom to see which one I'd go into,” Max said.

Gooch says policies like the one in Sherman ISD not only violate Title IX but also create a hostile environment that enables further discrimination. Eighty-six percent of LGBTQ youth feel that recent political discussion has negatively impacted their well-being, according to a report from the Trevor Project.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Ayden Runnels | The Texas Tribune