Max Hightower stands with his sister Gracie outside the Sherman Independent School District board meeting on Nov. 13, 2023.
A school district in northern Texas announced unexpectedly this week that it will let a high school performance of “Oklahoma” go on as initially planned — including allowing a transgender student to play a lead role and reinstating actors who had been cut for dressing in clothes for roles that didn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth.
The unanimous decision from the Sherman Independent School District’s board of trustees, a reversal of a controversial decision that Sherman High School made earlier this month, is a rare win for LGBTQ+ youth in the town. But many residents say they are still concerned about the influence that conservative politics and religion have on public schools.
Sherman High School made national headlines when the principal cut Max Hightower, a transgender high school senior, and several other students from a production of “Oklahoma.” The principal reportedly told parents the school would only cast students “born as females in female roles and students born as males in male roles.” The district then announced it would postpone the show because of sexual content and profanity — a move it walked back days later by saying it would allow an age-appropriate version of “Oklahoma.” That version did not include the character of Ali Hakim, whom Hightower had been cast to play.
Dozens of people, including parents, local college students and current and former Sherman High students, packed into the district office Monday to voice their disappointment. For over two hours, they shared their experiences of being queer and trans in Sherman, described the home they’d found in theater programs, and emphasized the need for better protections for LGBTQ+ students.
After the public comment section ended, the seven members of the board of trustees began a closed session that lasted several hours. Most of the crowd petered out into the dark, some gathering for a meal nearby and others lingering to debrief or share a hug, according to those who were there.
By then, Hightower was exhausted. He and his mother drove home while his dad stayed at the meeting. Hightower took a long shower to unwind, worried about what the board might decide. When his friend texted him that the show would go on, he couldn’t stop smiling.
The next day at school, as the cast went on a field trip to a costume shop, all of the actors cried and hugged one another. “We all celebrated in the choir room this morning,” Hightower told HuffPost on Tuesday. “It was just so moving.”
“When we were first driving up to the board meeting, we were expecting to see some kind of hate, but there was an overwhelming amount of support,” he said. “I was shocked.”
At the meeting, Leon Espinoza, a 20-year-old trans man, told the board he was risking coming out to his family by speaking.
“I have been a member of the theater since I was 4 years old. It has been my safe space,” Espinoza, a junior at nearby Austin College, said to the board. “I have been a member of the Sherman community since I was 6 years old. It has never been my safe space.”
Before he returned to his seat, Espinoza hugged Hightower’s father.
Some alumni of Sherman High School, including queer and transgender former students, spoke at the meeting and explained how anti-LGBTQ+ policies are not a new problem in the district.
One alum, Anna Clarkson, who previously directed choir at Sherman High, said that in 2015 she was asked by now-district Superintendent Tyson Bennett if she thought it was appropriate that the school’s production of “Legally Blonde” had gay and lesbian characters. She said Bennett, who was at the time assistant superintendent, asked her to make the lesbian character straight instead.
By the end of the evening, after their closed session, the board of trustees reversed the initial decision about the show’s casting.
“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 board wrote in a statement. “We understand that our decision does not erase the impact this has 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 decision came as a surprise to many in an overwhelmingly red town, and in a state that has passed seven bills targeting LGBTQ+ youth and where the attorney general has investigated families of transgender youth.
Many people in Sherman say the commotion over transgender actors and casting in the school musical is a symptom of larger, longstanding battles about conservative Christian priorities and their rise in public education.
“This is not just about Max losing his role. This is not just about ‘Oklahoma,’” Espinoza told HuffPost. “This is about the intolerance of an older generation and the fact that they wish to not just deny, but actively prohibit kids from having safe spaces where they can be themselves, where they can have fun and where they can feel joy.”
Matthew Krov, a parent and 22-year resident of Sherman, said he first became concerned about the school district’s attitudes toward LGBTQ+ students this spring, when Bennett hired a local pastor to be the district’s director on character education.
The district’s communications director, Meghan Cone, said in an email that the director of character education role is “based on the state-required Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.” Cone pointed to the school’s website, which defines “character education” as programming to help students develop “positive character traits.”
Krov said he was troubled by what he saw as the increasing influence of religion on schools. He noted that Bennett has introduced the “Stand in the Gap” program, which gives local churches a greater role in education through mentorship programs and “community wide prayer events” for schools.
In the past year, Texas has pushed forward legislation to increase the role of religion in public schools, including passing a law this spring that gives school districts the right to “employ a chaplain instead of a school counselor to perform duties required of a school counselor under this title.” Lawmakers have also considered bills to require classrooms to display a copy of the Ten Commandments and provide students with time to pray or read religious texts.
Krov said that in May, he saw Anna Wylie, a member of the board of trustees, protesting at a local LGBTQ+ event, holding up a sign that read “What are you confused about?” as students entered. Wylie, a member of the local tea party group Texoma Patriots, appears to be visible in a photo taken at then-President Donald Trump’s speech in Washington, D.C., before rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Wylie declined to comment to HuffPost.)
After that incident, Krov said he asked Bennett over email and in phone calls how the board was going to support LGBTQ+ students. He said Bennett told him at the time that this was not a district issue.
Cone did not answer a question about the district’s support for LGBTQ+ students. Bennett did not directly respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
The Sherman board of trustees announced a special meeting for Friday to open an investigation into the district’s handling of “Oklahoma.” The district said it plans to consult with its legal counsel and consider “possible administrative leave” and other actions against Bennett.
“Sherman is at a crossroads,” Krov said. “I think there’s a tipping point right now where we’ve got a lot of growth and people fighting that growth, and I think [Bennett] and others who have been here forever have a very particular view of how Sherman is and want to see a certain agenda.”