Being the center of media attention has been scary for high school senior Max Hightower, but he’s glad he took a stand
TAMMYE NASH | Managing Editor
Max Hightower doesn’t mind at all being in the spotlight on stage. In fact, he works hard in his theater class to earn that place in the spotlight. But over the last few weeks, the 17-year-old Sherman High School senior has found out that being in the national media spotlight really isn’t that much fun at all.
Ironically, it was the fact that he had earned his place in the stage spotlight that ended up turning the media spotlight on him.
In mid-October, when Max found out he had won the role of Ali Hakim in the school’s planned production of Oklahoma!, he was thrilled.
Then SHS Principal Scott Johnson contacted Max’s parents, and the parents of other students cast in the planned production, to let them know there was a new policy in place: Only males could play male roles, and only females could play female roles, with “male” and “female” defined by gender markers on birth certificates.
That meant that not only could Max no longer play Ali Hakim but that the two female students who had been cast in male roles couldn’t play those parts either.
The students, including Max, were devastated.
“This was my first big role in any of the plays I’ve been in,” said Max, who has been out as a transgender male since starting high school. “I had a bunch of speaking lines. I had my own song. So I was really, really excited.”
So when the “new policy” was announced, he added, “I was pretty angry. Everyone was angry. I didn’t know if it was illegal, really, but I just kept saying, ‘This is illegal!’
“My Fine Arts director was like, ‘It will be okay.’ I looked at her and said, ‘I want to sue!’ All the color just left her face. We have not sued anybody, but that’s what I said.”
The parents of the students, especially Max’s dad Phillip Hightower, were furious, too. And when Phillip couldn’t get a straight answer about when this policy was put in place, and who actually put it in place, he called the media.
Over the next two weeks, Sherman ISD Superintendent announced the production, scheduled for mid-December, was going to be delayed til mid-January. Then he announced that the musical was full of profanity and sexual content and adult themes unsuited for a high school production, so students were going to stage the revised version intended for “youth.” (The revised version is actually intended for pre-high school-age students.)
Then Bennett released a wildly self-contradictory statement explaining there was no policy regarding the gender of actors playing specific roles, except in this one instance in which only males could play male roles, and that non-policy wouldn’t apply to future productions, except maybe it would.
By the time the Sherman ISD Board of Trustees gathered Monday night, Nov. 13, for their regular meeting, the story had made headlines around the country. Max was definitely in the spotlight.
Some 65 people signed up to speak during the public comment portion of that board meeting, and “all but five or six” were there to support Max and his castmates, noted Phillip Hightower afterwards.
By the end of that meeting, following a closed executive session, the SISD board had voted to reinstate the original cast to present the original version of the musical. The board has also called a meeting for Nov. 17 to discuss possible disciplinary action against Bennett.
The show will still be delayed until sometime in January because, as Max noted, “we’ve lost about three weeks of rehearsals, and we have already taken down the sets.”
Phillip Hightower admitted that he was surprised — though happily so — when the board voted to reverse the decisions Bennett had made to change the cast, change the musical and delay the production. But, he added, “When you have the New York Times sitting in the front row of the Sherman ISD school board meeting, cooler heads do tend to prevail!”
For Max, the whole ordeal has been trying. “It was really scary,” he said, to suddenly find himself the center of so much attention.
“It was a lot, being in the spotlight that way,” Max said. “But I thought, if I could be the voice for other people, people who are not out yet, I wanted to do that. I wanted to be the voice for everybody who couldn’t speak for themselves.”
Although he has been openly transgender for about four years now, Max said this is “the first time I’ve done anything like this,” referring to his decision to stand up and fight back against the school administration’s discriminatory decisions.
“It’s been scary, but I am glad I did it,” Max added. “I have seen that there are more loving and accepting people in my hometown than I ever knew. I was not expecting this overwhelming support and acceptance that I’ve gotten.”
Max said he has heard of a couple of instances in which some high schoolers have posted negative comments online, but “I heard they got in trouble for it.”
Phillip said he has gotten “zero hate” from anyone, despite his outspoken stance in support of his son. “Of course, I am 6-foot-5 and about 270 pounds, so for some reason, no one has anything ill to say to me about it! … Seriously though, we’ve all just been blown away. Even on Facebook, it’s been nothing but love.”
For now, Phillip said, Max is “a little bit burned out” on all the media interviews, and was getting ready for a theater retreat that would hopefully get him out of the spotlight. But that is only for a little while.
High school graduation is just around the corner, and, Max said,
“So many colleges have reached out to me this past week. I wanted to go to college for music, but this has sort of pushed me into wanting to go into theater, instead.”
And a role as an activist isn’t out of the question, either: “I think I would like to do that,” he said. “I like sticking up for people.”
See more on the Nov. 13 SISD board meeting online at DallasVoice.com.