Texas school board reinstates cast, script of musical production after restrictions led a transgender student to lose role

A Texas school board voted to reinstate the original cast and script of a local high school’s production of “Oklahoma!” after the school district put restrictions in place for the performance that a parent said cost his transgender student a role in the play.

“We understand that our decision does not erase the impact this had on our community,” Brad Morgan, President of the Sherman Independent School District Board of Trustees, said in a statement.

“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.”

Students at Sherman High School in Sherman, Texas, planned to stage a performance of the musical “Oklahoma!” in December.

But the school district announced last week, that officials had been informed the musical contained “mature adult themes, profane language, and sexual content” and had decided to postpone the show.

The district said in a statement that it would review “all aspects” of the performance, including staging and casting, to ensure the performance was “appropriate for a high school stage.”

“As it relates to this particular production, the sex of the role as identified in the script will be used when casting. Because the nature and subject matter of productions vary, the district is not inclined to apply this criteria to all future productions,” the district said in the statement.

Max, a student at Sherman High School, performs in the play "The Little Shop of Horrors" in January. - Phillip Hightower
Max, a student at Sherman High School, performs in the play "The Little Shop of Horrors" in January. - Phillip Hightower

Phillip Hightower, whose 17-year-old son Max is a transgender student at Sherman High School, told CNN he received a call from the school principal, letting him know that Max and other students had been removed from the play because of a new policy involving gender.

“He said, ‘Well, unfortunately, we’ve instituted a new policy here’ and basically he said, ‘Only males can play males and only females can play females’,” Hightower told CNN Wednesday, adding the principal was referring to the students’ sex at birth.

“I was really shocked and stunned,” Hightower said, adding Max had been cast in a male role in the musical. “My kid was crushed.”

Hightower said his son loves singing in the school choir, but he became passionate about theatre after watching his older sister perform in high school plays.

Although Max had minor roles in previous shows, his father said the Oklahoma! musical marked the first time the high school senior was cast in a major role for a production.

But then, students were informed of the district’s new gender policy for the performance.

Max and his classmates who were cut from play cried when they found out about the school district’s decision, Hightower said.

“They’re in the hallway just consoling each other,” he added. “He said he kept just saying over and over, ‘This is illegal. This is illegal.’”

Although he was devastated, Hightower said Max was determined to fight the decision and he supported his son.

In a separate statement on November 10, the school district said after reviewing the production, officials had decided to move forward with a different, “age appropriate” version of the play.

“By utilizing a new version that’s age appropriate, sex will not be considered when casting the new production. Students will be able to play any part, regardless of whether the sex of the character aligns with the sex of the student assigned at birth,” the district noted in the November 10 statement.

Days later, following a public comment session at a school board meeting, members voted unanimously to overrule the district and reinstate the original cast and script of the production.

The controversy over the Sherman High’s theater performance is the latest in an ongoing debate around LGBTQ rights in schools.

Dr. Jennifer Katona, executive director of the Educational Theatre Association, an international nonprofit that serves school theatre programs, including the program at Sherman High, told CNN the association has seen similar policies restricting casting implemented in school districts across the US.

“Last spring, when there were many states proposing anti-drag bills, many school districts took action that was either in anticipation of those bills passing or used as an excuse to justify their choices to ban transgender casting,” Katona said.

She said decisions by school districts like Sherman ISD to restrict casting and oppose casting choices are “harmful and damaging to the individual students, school community and LGBTQIA+ students at large.”

Katona applauded the school board’s reversal but said the damage caused is “only partially repaired.”

“Educational theatre should remain a safe space for all students’ growth and learning. The confidence of the students has been shaken, and ongoing efforts are needed to restore trust,” she said. “We stand in solidarity with the affected students and their theatre teachers as they embark on the journey to rebuild this confidence.”

Hightower told CNN he welcomes the school board’s reversal and apology, but he hopes to see a policy in place to protect students from encountering a similar situation in the future.

“(Max) is feeling great … and ready to get back to work,” Hightower said.

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