After nationwide backlash, a transgender student in Texas has been reinstated in his role in the school’s production of Oklahoma!. Sherman Independent School District in Texas made headlines across the country earlier this month when they told student Max Hightower that he would no longer be allowed to play a male character in the school’s production of Oklahoma! due to a new anti-trans school policy.
Just two weeks after Max had landed the role, he received a call from Sherman High School’s principal informing him that he would not be allowed to perform in a role different from the sex he was assigned at birth. While Texas legislators have introduced a slew of anti-trans bills in the past few years, making it one of the least safe states for transgender people in the country, there is currently no law on the books that would ban a student from playing a role in a play that is different than the sex they were assigned at birth.
After the decision to remove Max from the role became public, Sherman High School received intense criticism from transgender and freedom of expression advocates across the nation, including the freedom of expression advocacy group, PEN America.
“This is a cruel decision guided by a ‘criteria’ that the district admits is applied unevenly,” PEN America’s Freedom to Read program director Kasey Meehan said in a statement. “It is yet another example of threats to free expression for LGBTQ+ students, coming amid a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ book bans and educational gag orders limiting expression in public schools and restricting content on gender identity and sexual orientation.”
Amidst this backlash, the school decided to modify their new policy to allow for students to play characters whose sex is different from the sex the student was assigned at birth, but modified the version of the production and script of the play. The decision to alter the production was criticized by the community and prompted a school board meeting where 60 community members, students, and school alumni spoke in support of Max.
“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,” a fellow castmate of Max said.
After extensive deliberation, the board voted unanimously to permit Max to assume his role in the original production of the play and issued a formal apology.
“We want to apologize to our students, parents and our community regarding the circumstances that they have had to go through to this date,” the school board’s statement says. 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.”
Max’s father, Phillip Hightower told the Dallas Morning News that while he’s glad that school district officials came to their senses and apologized, “There still needs to be accountability.”
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