Max Hightower huddled with his Oklahoma! castmates on the Sherman High School stage after finishing vocal warm-ups and enunciation exercises.
It was time for the pre-show tradition. The students turned to each other, holding hands and locking eyes. They echoed, line after line: Haters are gonna hate. And players are gonna play. And we’re just gonna shake, shake, shake it off.
The ritual had new resonance on this opening night.
Shortly after Max earned his leading role in the fall, the school administration took it away. They decided Max, who is transgender, would not be allowed to play a male part.
In this conservative town about 60 miles north of Dallas — where a school trustee previously protested outside a Pride celebration and the superintendent was accused of intervening in an earlier musical because of queer characters — theater families fought back, getting the district to reverse course.
Max’s story captivated people nationwide. LGBTQ rights advocates paid close attention. So did those tracking attempts to infuse Christianity into public schools.
It took hold of people in the broader theater world, too. They saw an attack on Max as a threat to their community and the inclusive space it represents.
That’s why — 1,535 miles away from Sherman High — a group of Broadway performers gathered in their green room to watch a livestream of the production’s opening night. Hennessy Winkler, a transgender actor who once starred in Oklahoma!, organized the watch party.
The professionals tuned in as high school theater director Kyle Nichols walked on stage to kick off the show. He wore all black, except for a small rainbow pin on his tie.
“Thank you for coming to support these kids,” Nichols told the audience.
Backstage, Max felt ready. The controversy had forced the teenager into the uncomfortable position of being a symbol. On opening night, he was just Ali Hakim.
The lights dimmed as the overture began. And finally, the curtains pulled open.
‘A sea of crying children’
Max was sitting in economics class on Nov. 3 when his phone lit up. “Call me when you have a chance,” his mom texted him.
Max felt confused. Had he gotten a bad grade or something?
A few moments later, his mom texted him again: “They’re taking your role away.”
That can’t be true, Max thought. He left class and raced to the choir room, hoping to find out his mom was wrong.
Musicals had become Max’s thing in high school. He loved hanging out in theater, often with a bunch of other LGBTQ students who treasured it as a sanctuary where they could express themselves.
Those kids had cheered for Max when he’d been promoted from an ensemble role in Oklahoma! to a leading man.
Photos: Crowd turnout for Sherman High School’s production of Oklahoma!
It was his first major part after four years of auditions. Max had thrown himself into rehearsing. He spoke lines into his phone’s recorder, then played back the voice memos to evaluate himself. He got off-book in three days and pictured being mic-ed up on stage.
But on that Friday in November, Sherman High School Principal Scott Johnston informed theater parents of new rules that meant Max — along with several girls cast to play male ensemble and supporting roles — had lost their parts.
Documents obtained by The Dallas Morning News through a public records request show that the district’s fine arts coordinator Kalyn McAlester emailed Johnston a script for explaining the decision to parents.
“Roles will be assigned based on gender where males are cast as males and females are cast as females,” part of the script read. “This will be the way casting will be done moving forward — males will be cast as males; females will be cast as females. I wanted you to know.”
When Max made it to the choir room, he learned his mother’s words were true. Students heard the news in waves, then collapsed into one another.
“There was literally a sea of crying children,” Max said.
Max looked for his friend Ellis Weinkauf, a 16-year-old girl who was no longer being allowed to play a cowboy. They held each other and cried.
At home, Max tried to make sense of the school’s decision as his phone blew up with messages from other theater kids. We just wanted to put on a show, he told himself. I’m not a bad kid.
He didn’t know what would happen with the musical. But he knew his mom was about to raise hell.
That night, his mom logged into Facebook and used Max’s chosen name in a post for the first time.
Before then, Amy Hightower didn’t talk openly online about Max’s identity. She was raised Southern Baptist, and not everyone in her family knew her youngest child was transgender. She worried what people might say, what insults they might hurl.
Now, she decided, was the time to speak up.
“What Sherman ISD did today is wrong. Taking kids out of places where they feel comfortable, safe and where they fit in is wrong. Period,” Amy wrote. “I’ll probably lose some friends and maybe even some family over this post and that is okay, but what I’m not going to lose is my unwavering support for my child.”
She changed her privacy settings, making her words open to the public.
Suddenly, The New York Times wanted to talk. So did ABC News. Amy worried she’d need to clean the baseboards in her house — also home to two Chihuahuas, a chiweenie and a bulldog named Dr. Indiana Jones — because so many cameras sought a peek into her family’s life.
While the world learned his name and his story, Max had to go to class. He tucked face paint in his backpack. On his cheek, and on the cheeks of a few close friends, he brushed the blue and pink of the transgender Pride flag.
As the story spread — from Broadway to Hollywood — angry emails flooded Superintendent Tyson Bennett’s inbox, as well as those of the district’s trustees. “Blatantly discriminatory,” some wrote. “Troubling.” “Hateful.” “Shameful.”
A smaller number of the emails obtained by The News expressed support for the decision.
“The student that lost their role in the play subscribes to an ideology that is a direct attack on the Christian values that we hold so dear,” one man wrote to a trustee. “Now is a great time for men and women of faith like yourself to stand up and reclaim the name of the Lord in public education settings.”
LGBTQ allies told the Hightowers they were organizing.
“I got a Cricut machine and a lot of angry energy right now,” one woman wrote to Amy on Facebook.
The woman crafted glittery protest T-shirts for the family to wear to the upcoming school board meeting.
‘Let them sing out’
The board meeting was 10 days after Max lost his role. Even though people would be there specifically to talk about him, Max decided not to go.
He knew about a previous protest targeting a LGBTQ youth event in Sherman, where a man with a megaphone shouted, “Get out of Texas! You do not belong here.” Max imagined those same people would show up to take over the public meeting. He didn’t want to stare hate in the eyes.
Instead, his father, Phillip, went.
As the meeting drew closer that afternoon, a crowd did grow. But to Phillip’s astonishment, they were there to support Max and his friends. Dozens of people waved Pride flags. “Let them sing out,” they chanted.
Phillip called Amy, who had just picked up Max from school.
“You’ve got to see this,” he said. “You’ve got to get here.”
Max ended up in the second row of the board room, listening as speakers excoriated the trustees. They slammed district leaders for discriminating against a transgender child. For bulldozing the refuge that is theater. For seemingly forgetting that Shakespeare’s leading women were men.
A few of Max’s teenage castmates marched to the lectern and leaned into the microphone.
“I guess I’m just confused why you chose to enforce this policy now,” freshman Wade Patterson asked school leaders.
Wade pointed out that Sherman high schoolers performed Oklahoma! before, just a few years earlier. It’s common for girls to play male characters in school productions, not just here but across the country. There are rarely enough high school boys interested in the musical.
The student’s words highlighted what district leaders had not publicly acknowledged: That the casting rules only changed after a transgender student earned a lead role.
District officials said their issue with Oklahoma! — a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic often performed at high schools — was its suitability. Bennett emailed trustees on Nov. 8 a list of more than 80 concerns with the script, according to documents obtained by The News.
The email was redacted to show only the page number, not the specific issue district leaders pinpointed. The News reviewed the official script and found, in several cases, the page numbers corresponded with scenes in which characters kiss or use innuendo.
Bennett and other district officials did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment.
When the school trustees retreated into closed session, Max headed for the hallway. He tried to wrap his head around what would motivate a person to want to take away his role.
Do people see me as some sort of monster? Max wondered. Then he laughed. He’s a kid who plays ukulele and practices American Sign Language. He keeps kitten formula in a cabinet at home so he can bottle-feed strays. What are they afraid of?
The minutes ticked by with no update from trustees. Amy and Max decided to go home. Phillip said he would stay and let them know what happened.
Finally, the board members emerged. President Brad Morgan delivered an apology and news: The kids, including Max, would get their original roles back.
Phillip burst into the hall to call his family, but his excitement was tempered. There’s still more to do, he told them on the phone. They needed accountability for Bennett, the superintendent, and an official, nondiscriminatory casting policy.
At that moment, though, Max’s theater kid group chats erupted in cheers: WE WON.
Questions over leadership
For some, the initial decision to revoke the students’ roles was devastating — but not a total shock. Texas lawmakers have repeatedly targeted LGBTQ students’ rights.
A few local school boards recently established policies around what bathrooms transgender students can use, as well as stating their district will not require or encourage the use of pronouns that don’t align with a student’s sex, as listed on their birth certificate.
In Sherman, a small group protested last year outside an off-campus Pride Prom. School trustee Anna Wylie was photographed among them, holding a sign that read, “What are you confused about?”
Wylie declined to comment when contacted by email last week.
Her participation in the demonstration prompted some people to demand action of district leadership. Matt Krov, whose son is in Oklahoma!, sent emails calling for Bennett to respond to Wylie’s behavior, saying the trustee bullied students.
Krov raised issues with other aspects of Bennett’s tenure, too. He questioned why the district hired a religious leader as its “coordinator of character education.” Prior to taking that job in SISD, Reid Kirk served as executive pastor of Fairview Baptist Church.
The church’s beliefs include the “only legitimate marriage is the joining of one man and one woman” and “God disapproves of and forbids any attempt to alter one’s gender by surgery or appearance.”
Bennett also promoted a program called Stand In The Gap, encouraging prayer and church involvement with the local public schools.
The superintendent had tried to intervene in a high school musical before, former Sherman choir teacher Anna Clarkson said. Whehn Legally Blonde was set to debut in 2015, Bennett asked her “how in the world I thought it was appropriate to have lesbian and gay characters in a high school production,” she said.
Days after the school board voted to reinstate the original Oklahoma! cast, the trustees met again to discuss Bennett’s leadership. Several people, including local pastors and district employees, came to support the embattled school leader.
The trustees voted to open a third-party investigation and remove the superintendent from overseeing the fine arts department until further notice.
A leading man
Freshly reinstated, Max and the rest of the cast rode the school bus to Rose Costumes, a roughly 9,000-square-foot mecca filled with everything the kids needed to transform into their characters.
An employee fitted Max for a suit. Max looked in the mirror, seeing himself as a leading man for the first time. Oh my god, he thought, this is so cool.
When he walked out of the dressing room, his friend Ellis jumped up and down.
“There’s Ali Hakim,” she said.
The theater director looked Max over before delivering his verdict: “This needs a bowler hat,” Nichols said.
Over the loudspeakers, Rose Costumes staff began blasting Oklahoma!’s soundtrack.
Even with their costumes fitted, the students remained behind schedule. They’d missed weeks of practice as adults fought over their show. Plus, the set was dismantled and winter break was coming up.
Nichols worked over the Christmas holiday to repaint the stage floor and fix up the set. He found himself in the auditorium so often during winter break that he brought a Pack ‘n Play so his 10-month-old daughter could join him.
Max practiced on overdrive, too. Even when his family left town for one of their regular Disney trips, Max and his sister Gracie ran lines, huddling in the hotel after long days at the park.
Max knew a bunch of people would watch the show specifically because of him. It made him nervous. During his big solo, he walks toward the edge of the stage. What if someone chucks something at me? he worried.
Nichols decided to bring in extra security. He wanted to station a police officer on either side of the stage. He also recruited a 6-foot-5 football player from his theater class to stand guard by the door.
Sherman officials said the district’s administration and police worked on a plan to ensure those involved with the show were safe.
A kid, not a symbol
There’s coming out — and then there’s coming out to the whole Internet, the whole world.
For Max, it’s been whiplash.
Some parts are good. His mom’s Southern Baptist family — the ones she worried wouldn’t understand Max’s identity — supported him. Max’s great-grandmother clipped every news article she found about his fight to perform.
Then there was the man in Connecticut who offered $15,000 if the Hightowers wanted to stage the show privately.
And the letter of encouragement that recently landed in the Hightowers’ mailbox. “I just wanted to write you a note to celebrate your production of Oklahoma,” it read.
“The gentleman who wrote that … he is the director of the theater that first played Hamilton,” Phillip told his son as he handed over the postcard.
“Whaaaaat,” Max responded.
“He’s close personal friends with Lin-Manuel Miranda,” Phillip added, as Max’s eyes widened.
While it’s ridiculously cool that theater icons know his name, Max is also grappling with the fact that so many strangers do, too. That’s brought the hard stuff: Questions about what bathroom he uses and mean posts on Snapchat.
Max understood there were people — in his community, in his school — who weren’t on his side when he got kicked out of the musical. And still aren’t now.
Phillip thought back to when he was in high school. If someone said something bad about him, it would’ve knocked him out for a month. His son had it coming from all over.
One night after rehearsal, as they sat together on the couch, he turned and looked at Max. “God, you’re so strong, kid,” Phillip said.
It can take a toll. While he scrolled his phone at a recent theater convention, Max saw a comment some guy posted about him on Facebook. “Drop the pants, show us your lady parts, and then we will see how good of an actor you are,” he wrote.
Max ran into the hall to cry.
Nichols followed, wrapping Max in his arms. He hated that his kids had to become activists.
The theater director tried to comfort Max, telling him other kids won’t have to worry about their identity being used against them in casting, all because of Max’s bravery.
“It’s not that simple,” Max responded. “I’m not a symbol. I’m 17.”
As Max burst onto stage opening night, the audience whooped and hollered — perhaps no one louder than Amy and Phillip, arms around each other in the sixth row.
Max played his lines for laughs, but his parents kept dabbing tears from their eyes. Their son, who recently turned 18, had been a ham since day one and now he could show everyone his talent.
The crowd cheered when Max sang his big song, “It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage!” He bounced around the stage alongside Ellis in her cowboy getup.
To Phillip, opening night felt like the start of a change. He’d learned that two supportive community members were running for school board. He wanted to help them win.
For now, though, it was time to celebrate. The audience showered the cast with a standing ovation as they took their bows.
Max found his family in the lobby, arms overflowing with flowers. “You were meant to be,” Amy told him.
When they got back home, another bouquet awaited Max. It was from Hennessy, the Broadway actor who’d watched the livestream.
He included a card, quoting a line from the musical: You cain’t deserve the sweet and tender things in life less’n you’re tough.
“And you are,” he added.
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.
This story has been updated with a comment from the school district about safety.