Trans kids lost roles in Texas school musical — until their parents went to bat for them

As It Happens6:52Trans kids lost roles in Texas school musical — until their parents went to bat for them

When Amy Hightower and other parents of theatre kids at Sherman High School in Texas filed into a school board meeting on Monday night to fight for their kids, they never thought they’d win.

Amy’s transgender son Max, 17, is one of several students who had lost their roles in a school performance of the musical Oklahoma! because of their gender. 

But the kids pushed back, and their parents rallied around them. And on Monday night, they successfully convinced the school board to reverse the decision and apologize. 

“I think it was important for these kids to see that we stood up for them. We recognized that this was wrong in many ways. And we fought. We fought for them,” Hightower told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

“And in this instance we came out on top, and it was a great learning experience for them.”

Max was unavailable for an interview because he and his fellow teen thespians are spending a week at theatre camp — a much-needed reprieve after a hard-fought battle, his mother said. 

But after the unexpected victory, he told the New York Times: “I’m beyond excited and everyone cried tears of joy.”

Theatre as a safe space

Max lives for theatre, his mother says.

“Theatre and choir are where Max feels the most safe and the most comfortable, where there are other kids just like him that don’t fit your everyday mould,” she said.

When he first tried out for Oklahoma!, he was disappointed to be cast in a minor role. Then another kid dropped out, and he was offered one of the leads — Hakim the Peddler.

“Max called me from the theatre teacher’s room and I could just hear the excitement just bubbling through on the other line,” Hightower said.

But the thrill was short-lived. Shortly after he was cast, she says Max’s father received a phone call from Sherman High’s principal informing him that the school had enacted a new policy that students can only be cast in roles that aligned with their gender assigned at birth.

Max, she says, was devastated.

“It was not a good day,” Hightower said.

Selfie of a woman and smiling teen boy in the front seat of a car.
After a victory at a school board meeting, Max Hightower, right, will play Hakim the Peddler in his high school musical production of Oklahoma! His mother Amy, left, told CBC: ‘I am so excited to watch Max on stage. I’ll be there every single performance.’ (Submitted by Amy Hightower)

That’s when the parents started to organize. 

It started, Hightower says, with a Facebook post where she shared what had happened to Max.

She connected with other parents. About 20 of Max’s castmates had lost their roles, she said. Some were transgender and nonbinary. Others, she said, were cisgender girls cast as men because there weren’t enough boys to fill all the male roles.

The story made local news. And then it went national.

Conflicting statements

The school district issued a statement on its website on Nov. 6 saying the musical had been rescheduled not because of gender roles, but because the district had been made aware the 1943 musical contained “mature adult themes, profane language, and sexual content.”

“Unfortunately, all aspects of the production need to be reviewed, including content, stage production/props, and casting to ensure that the production is appropriate for the high school stage,” the statement read.

The statement said while “the sex of the role as identified in the script” would be used to recast the play, there is “no policy on how students are assigned to roles.”

But that’s not what parents had been told, says Hightower. The New York Times obtained a recording of a message that Principal Scott Johnston left on another parent’s voicemail stating that: “Moving forward, the Sherman theatre department will cast students born as females in female roles and students born as males in male roles.”

The school district did not respond to a request for comment about the conflicting statements. 

Teenagers in 1900s attire sing and dance on stage.
Max, centre, says he’s thrilled to perform the role of Hakim on stage. (Submitted by Amy Hightower)

On Nov. 10, the school district issued another statement: The play would resume with the original casting intact. But it would be an edited version of Oklahoma! meant for a younger audience. 

The cast was not appeased. The youth version is half as long, contains no solos, and reduces a number of prominent roles to minor ones — including Max’s.

Victory and apology

On Monday night, they took the matter to a school board meeting, where Max’s father was among the dozens who spoke on behalf of the students. 

In the end, board voted unanimously to allow the musical to go on as originally planned.

Board president Brad Morgan also issued an apology.

“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,” he said. 

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

Hightower says the apology is not enough. She’s upset by what she calls “untruths” told by the school district during the battle, and worries there is still strong anti-LGBTQ sentiment among some of the staff.

But she’s thrilled that Max and his friends learned the value of standing up for themselves — and of solidarity. 

“I expected to get some hate whenever I made my posts,” she said.

“But oh my gosh, the absolute outpouring of love and support that we have received far outweighs any negative or hateful thing that we have received. It’s truly a beautiful thing to witness.”

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