Max Hightower with his parents, Amy and Phillip, accepting The Defender Award

The battle for equality continues but trans teen Max Hightower’s high school graduation is reason for all of us to celebrate

Friday night, May 31, starting at 7 p.m., some 540 students in crimson robes will walk across the stage set up in Sherman Independent School District’s Bearcat Stadium to receive their diplomas and officially become graduates of Sherman High School or the district’s Jefferson Learning Center. One of those 540 students will be Max Hightower.

Max Hightower is just like any other high school senior about to graduate: Excited and expectant, maybe a little bit nervous. Looking to the future with enthusiasm, but also maybe a bit nostalgic about the past. Ready to step into a whole new adult world full of challenges and adventures and possibilities. Ready to make their mark and change the world.

But Max Hightower is also unlike most of high school seniors about to graduate. He has already seen what the adult world looks like. He has already overcome challenges that others never have to face, and he has already celebrated victory in battles his classmates will never fight.

Max Hightower has already made his mark on the world.

See, Max Hightower is transgender, and he has spent practically his entire senior year fighting for the right to be himself and to be treated the same as his classmates.

It started in October when Max was cast in a lead male role — Ali Hakim — in Sherman High School’s planned production of Oklahoma! Only some folks in the SISD administration (we won’t say his name, but his initials were Superintendent Tyson Bennett) were so outraged by the idea of trans boy playing a male role that they (he) decided to cancel the whole production and issue a policy/non-policy against students playing roles in school productions that did not align with their gender assigned at birth — but only this time, except maybe for other times, “we’re not sure.”

To be clear, this had nothing to do with whether Max Hightower deserved the role of Ali Hakim, nothing to do with his talents or abilities or anything else at all. It was all about Max’s gender identity and about Tyson Bennett’s own bigotry and his insistence that he had the right to impose his own ill-informed, religion-based prejudices on Sherman ISD, its staff, faculty and students.

Fortunately, Max Hightower had his family, including parents Amy and Phillip, and lots of friends on his side. They were not going to sit by and let transphobic bigotry win. They took their fight to the media and to the Sherman ISD school board. And the board members, with glare of the media spotlight focused firmly on them, came through. Board members reversed Bennett’s decision, reinstated the production as originally cast (the show was staged in January, rather than the original December date), and Bennett was, first, suspended and then, earlier this month, “voluntarily separated” from his job as superintendent.

Also earlier this month, Max Hightower and his parents traveled to New York where Amy and Phillip received the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund’s Defender Award.

Max Hightower won — thanks to parents, family and friends who were willing to stand up and fight for him; thanks to advocates around the state and the country who stepped up and spoke out; thanks to school board members in a relatively small North Texas school district who were willing to do the right thing.

Max Hightower won, and, in the process, the transgender community and the LGBTQ community overall won.

But even as we celebrate Max’s victory, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the battle against the forces of hate and bigotry continue. Many transgender youth face their own battles without the support of family and friends, without the media shining a light on the injustices they face, without anyone to advocate for them.

Here in Texas and in other states where hate holds the reins of government, transgender youth are not allowed to compete in school sports. They are not allowed to use the locker rooms and bathrooms appropriate to their gender identity. Transgender youth are denied access to life-saving gender-affirming healthcare; even those with supportive families are forced to travel out of state to get the healthcare they need, and even then, they have to fight against Texas’ transphobic, hate-mongering attorney general who has tried numerous times to force clinics outside of Texas to hand over to him private health records of transgender youth.

The battle continues for transgender adults, as well. According to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of the 2022 Census Bureau’s Household Pulse survey, seven out of 10 transgender adults are depressed, nearly twice the rate reported by cisgender men and cisgender women; 19 percent of transgender people experience hunger, compared to 9 of cisgender individuals, and three out of 10 transgender adults had lost their jobs or lived with someone who lost their job, compared to about one in 10 cisgender men who reported recent job loss in their household. Transgender adults reported losing their job at a 50 percent higher rate than people within the broader LGBTQ community.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, more than one in four transgender people have lost a job due to bias, and more than three-fourths have experienced some form of workplace discrimination.

We have so very much more work ahead of us. And sometimes it seems overwhelming; sometimes it seems the mountains left ahead of us are insurmountable. But we have to keep fighting, because as long as we keep fighting, we will win. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

So we keep up the fight, and we celebrate our victories along the way. Today, that means celebrating with Max Hightower as he graduates from Sherman High School, and it means remembering that Max and the family and friends who stood by him are our future. They are our arc bending toward justice.