By Brian Wenke – Executive Director, It Gets Better Project
As a social outcast in high school, my saving grace was the acceptance I found in my high school’s drama department. I could be whoever I wanted to be without fear of bullying, if only for a couple of hours a day. It was an essential element in the formation of my identity, and I went on to graduate as an acting major from the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati before entering the world of LGBTQ+ advocacy.
My own formative experiences in theater left me especially heartbroken and enraged by the story of Max Hightower, a student at Sherman High School in Texas. Max was cast as a star of his school’s production of the musical Oklahoma!.
Sadly, Max’s theater experience was thrown off course when his school decided that he would not be able to play the role that he was so excited to perform. As a trans actor, Max was the target of a now-revoked school policy that prohibited students from performing roles that don’t match the gender they were assigned at birth.
The situation catapulted Max to the national stage, garnering coverage on morning news programs and in local papers, and elevating him from 17-year-old student actor to symbolic figure. Thankfully, Max’s family and school community rallied to support him, resulting in his role being restored. But not without the School Board switching the production version multiple times, and making an example out of an earnest teen just trying to do what they love.
Theater provides training in empathy, active listening, public speaking, relationship-building, collaboration, and dozens of other skills with real-world application. Beyond that, acting is a form of play that has traditionally attracted folks from the most marginalized communities. We cannot rob youth – any youth – of this creative outlet.
The entire point of acting is stepping into the shoes of a character who is different from the actor themselves. Forcing young actors into arbitrary boxes undermines the concepts of creativity, imagination and exploration that theater is supposed to promote.
Not only are policies like these harmful and discriminatory, they also ignore the craft’s rich history and modern legacy of experimentation with gender, race and other characteristics. From Sarah Bernhardt’s groundbreaking portrayal of Hamlet in 1899, to modern shows with LGBTQ themes like Fun Home and Kinky Boots, productions that subvert societal norms can help “outsiders” feel included or breathe new life into old stories,making them accessible to modern audiences. The adults in the room are failing today’s youth. And while the scenario in Sherman, TX was resolved quickly, it is a canary in the coal mine. As the growing onslaught of local anti-LGBTQ laws continues to embolden leaders across the country, the dangerous trickle-down takes the form of schools restricting queer youth from unapologetically being themselves – and having safe spaces like theater classrooms to foster their sense of belonging, stretch their self-expression, and allow moments of joy.
As the Executive Director of the It Gets Better Project, a nonprofit with a mission to uplift, empower, and connect LGBTQ+ youth around the globe, I get to witness every day the joy young LGBTQ+ people experience when they can connect with their community and feel like they belong. It is truly a beautiful thing to observe a young person discovering themselves and coming into their power — queer or not. I mercilessly oppose any person or group seeking to rob young people of their joy and happiness.
The bottom line is simple: We as a society need to reject any and all policies, rules or harmful norms that prevent kids from expressing their truest selves. Sherman High School’s leaders should recognize the mistake they made in stifling Max’s voice and rescind their policy. They – and all of us – must understand that encouraging our kids to be who they are and fully accepting and embracing them doesn’t just make them better off, it enriches all our lives.
The show must and will go on. Let the kids play, and let Max take center stage!
Brian Wenke is the Executive Director of It Gets Better, a nonprofit with a mission to uplift, empower, and connect LGBTQ+ youth around the globe.