Photo of Max Hightower
Max Hightower Photo by Rebecca J Michelson

The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund (DLDF) proudly bestowed The 2024 Defender Award upon Philip, Amy, and Max Hightower of Sherman, Texas, at the Dramatists Guild Awards Night held at Sony Hall in New York City.

The DLDF is privileged to honor the Hightower Family with this prestigious award. Their unwavering commitment to inclusivity and equality has left an indelible mark on the Sherman School District. Philip and Amy Hightower, together with their son Max, embody a steadfast dedication to advocating for inclusivity, equality and the rights of all students, as well as free expression in the dramatic arts.

The Hightower family's extraordinary journey began with a profound injustice in their community. In November 2023, Max Hightower, a senior at Sherman High School, was unjustly barred from portraying Ali Hakim in the school’s production of the historically groundbreaking musical Oklahoma! due to his transgender identity. Not only was Max targeted, but all students cast in roles incongruent with their gender assigned at birth were also banned from the production.

Philip and Amy Hightower, Max's parents, courageously took a stand against this discrimination, amplifying their voices through local media channels and sparking a nationwide outcry. Their advocacy led to a nationwide media storm and a groundswell of support for Max and other affected students. In response to the community's outrage, Sherman High School announced that Oklahoma! would be under review due to its “mature adult themes, profane language, and sexual content.”

At a heated public school board meeting, over 60 people spoke in support of Max. Eventually, the board voted to reinstate the original script and cast of Oklahoma!. The production went on as planned, but the impact of the Hightower family's advocacy reverberated far beyond the stage. On May 1st, 2024, the superintendent, Tyson Bennet, was removed from his position because of the controversy. 

Playwright and DLDF Board Member Robert Schenkkan (All the WayHacksaw Ridge) presented the award to the entire Hightower family in front of an audience of writers, advocates, and artists. Schenkkan lauded the Hightowers, stating "These are challenging times in the American theater. Censorship is on the rise, especially in public high schools. From Chekov to Shakespeare, it seems no writer is safe. Or safe for their audiences. But tonight, we honor and celebrate a victory for free speech, common sense, and courage."

The Defender Award is presented by the DLDF’s board to recognize an individual or group’s efforts in support of free expression in the dramatic arts. Previous recipients of the Defender of the Year Award have included the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned Initiative, playwrights Alice Childress and Sharai BohannonSvetlanaMintcheva of the National Coalition Against CensorshipMarjory Stoneman Douglas students Sawyer Garrity and Andrea Peña, the cast and crew of the musical Hamilton, attorney Edward J. Davis, columnist Howard Sherman, and high school student Larissa Mark.

The Dramatists Guild Legal Defense Fund (DLDF) advocates and educates on behalf of the right of free speech on stages across America. The DLDF believes in more speech, not less, and that there should be discussion about why a theatrical work is complex instead of cancelling a production. If your school show has been cancelled, the DLDF can help you figure out your options for moving forward. The DLDF can find alternative spaces where students can perform cancelled shows, send authors of cancelled shows to the community for a panel discussion, send letters to schools and town officials encouraging them to remount cancelled shows, find legal assistance for those who want to take the matter to court, and more. Visit to find resources and how you can join the fight against censorship. Because words matter.

Since its inception in 1919, the Dramatists Guild of America has been the professional association for playwrights, librettists, lyricists, and composers writing for the American stage. With over 10,000 members around the world, the Guild is guided by a governing council of writers who each give their time, interest, and support to advance the rights of dramatists everywhere, including the right for dramatists to own and control their own copyrighted work. The Guild’s advocacy, programs, events, publications, and other services provide dramatists with the resources, the community, and the support they require.

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