School board backs down on student theatre ban on trans leading man

Sherman High School, Sherman, Texas

A transgender student has been reinstated as the male lead in his school’s production of Oklahoma! after his school’s board faced intense backlash nationwide.

Sherman Independent School District in Texas made headlines across the US and beyond when they prohibited trans boy Max Hightower from playing a leading male role he had successfully earned.

Hightower was told by Sherman High School’s principal that a new policy would prevent him from playing the role he had been assigned in the musical because of his transgender identity.

“Actors and actresses could only play a role that was the same gender they were assigned at birth,” Max recalled from the conversation with his prinicpal in an interview with KXII.

Oklahoma! the musical
Trans boy Max Hightower was told by his school that he could not play the male lead role in Oklahoma, despite earning the role fair and square. (Getty Images)

After the decision from Hightower’s school sparked intense criticism across the nation and was condemned by the freedom of speech group PEN America, the school opted to modify their new policy, allowing for students to play different genders, but altering the production to a more child-friendly production of Oklahoma!, made for “pre-high school students” with “younger attention spans.”

That decision brought on just as much disapproval from the community and prompted people to come together and stand up for Hightower at a school board meeting.

You may like to watch

The meeting, held on Monday (13 October) saw locals, students, and school alumni rally together to fight for Hightower’s cause, with over 60 individuals speaking before the council in the student’s defence, independent reporter ErinInTheMorning reports.

Among those speaking was one of Max’s fellow Oklahoma! castmates Lucy, who spoke about how she and her classmates were taught about teamwork, collaboration, and the arts through their theatre teachers.

“Then,” she says, “a little over a week ago, our principal brought some of our classmates into his office and we all learned some new lessons… about prejudice, transphobia, and discrimination.”

Another person who spoke at the meeting was a transgender Austin College student named Leon, who said that he was “risking coming out to [his] entire homophobic family” to stand up for Hightower and his castmates.

Philip Hightower, Max Hightower's father.
The trans boy’s father Philip Hightower helped him fight for his part in Oklahoma. (KXII)

The college student told the school board meeting: “Ever since I joined Austin College, I have not played a female character – not for want of trying. I’ve simply been cast the way all theatre shows are cast: by merit, by what I earn. I believe to strip another student of this opportunity is an injustice.”

Openly gay school alumnus Jonathan Morris spoke about his disgust at his alma matter’s decision to remove Hightower from their play, telling the board he was “appalled” to see that school bullies had moved “from the hallways to administration offices and this school board.”

Pointing to one member of the board, Morris said: “Your son was in two theatrical productions with me. How you can sit here now and try to take away this opportunity from [Hightower] is completely beyond my comprehension.”

After hearing from all speakers on Monday, the school board took a two-hour break before returning with the unanimous decision to reinstate Max in his original role and allow the theatre department to put on the original production of Oklahoma!

The board also offered an apology to Max and anyone else who was upset by their original decision. It reads: “We want to apologize to our students, parents, and our community regarding the circumstances that they have had to go through to this date. 

“We understand that our decision does not erase the impact this had on our community, but we hope that we will reinforce to everyone, particularly our students, that we do embrace all of our Board goals, to include addressing the diverse needs of our students and empowering them for success in a diverse and complex world. 

“The Board is committed to upholding its ethical duties to include being continuously guided by what is best for all students in our District.”