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Gender Casting: Theatre Educators in the United States Need to Pay Attention to Title IX Developments

As a theatre educator who has spent the last few years working with high school students, I find some of this year’s headlines troubling. This summer, Laurel Hubbard made news as the first transgender woman to compete in the Olympics. Many celebrated this highly publicized, international victory for transgender people. However, just a few months before, on a much smaller, more local stage, the rights of transgender students were being threatened. In March, Tennessee governor Bill Lee joined like-minded officials to pass a law that requires students participating on a girls’ or boys’ sports team to show a birth certificate to prove their assigned sex.

So, what does this have to do with theatre students?

Title IX, or Public Law 92-318, states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Lee Green, JD, an attorney and professor emeritus at Baker University, explains the expansive reach of Title IX as, “a broadly written prohibition on gender discrimination in educational institutions, which although applicable to all programs and activities, curricular and extracurricular, offered by high schools and colleges, is best known for its application to sports.” In other words, athletic activities are just one area of federally funded school activities that Title IX applies to, and public school theatre programs are subject to both the law and the newer regulatory interpretations.

Title IX was created with the best of intentions. Written in 1972, the law was meant to level the playing field for underserved girls competing in public school sports in the United States. Governor Lee specifically stated that his recent actions protect the intent of the original law. This year, thirty-seven states considered laws that interpreted Title IX regarding transgender students. Now that thirteen states have adopted anti-trans bills that reference student athletes, theatre educators need to be aware of the law and the recent interpretations of Title IX.

In working with the students, I saw how deeply gender issues affected them, especially outside of the walls of the school.

Professor Lee Green, points out that Title IX “pertains to safeguarding the rights of students in a wide range of educational settings.” What if recent interpretations of the law have the potential to prohibit casting a transgender girl from playing a female role in a school production? As a theatre educator, how would you react to being questioned for casting students against their assigned sex? Imagine if, even in your classroom, you couldn’t cast a student in a different gender role as part a lesson plan for the purpose of encouraging dialogue or empathy.

For the last four years, I directed an afterschool drama club in a large school district in Tennessee. I quickly noticed that gender identity was a prevalent issue for many of my theatre students. Roughly half of the students who attended drama club described themselves as gay, transgender, or questioning. In working with the students, I saw how deeply gender issues affected them, especially outside of the walls of the school.

Three actors sitting on white cubes onstage.

Teagen Behan, Tianna Lartz and Lucas Geiger. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime adapted by Simon Stephens, performed by The Moonlight Players. Directed by Kim Messer. Stage Manager, Laurel Spencer-Smith. Set Design, Kim Messer & Joy Patton. Lighting Design, Joy Patton & Rick Bernstein. Sound Design by Sam Mueller & Will Watts.

During my time there, I noted that some parents fully accepted and embraced their transgender students, but I also had several students who lived one life at school and another at home. Some students were known by their chosen name at school and by their birth name at home. When we created programs for a show, we didn’t just check for the correct spelling of a student’s name; we had to be sure that Mom and Dad would be okay with the name that we printed.

In a school built on unique model, one that supports the inclusion of non-traditional, non-conforming students, I learned a lot about myself, too. I know I still have a long way to go to be an effective transgender advocate, but my theatre students helped shape me into the kind of teacher I want to be. Last fall, after some of the COVID-19 restrictions loosened, our troupe known as the Moonlight Players was finally able to stage our first student-written and -directed one act play. In Our Shoes centered around the character Ben, a student grappling with challenges faced as a transgender student in high school.

I’m grateful for the positive experiences students had in our theatre troupe, and I know that the benefits of our inclusive school environment were made possible, in part, by the educators who came before me. One such educator is Sharon Grady, who wrote a comprehensive text on diversity and theatre education, Drama and Diversity: A Pluralistic Perspective for Educational Drama. Though written more than twenty years ago, Grady’s book covers a wide range of racial, ethnic, class, gender, and sexual orientation issues. She states that “teachers need to be vigilant and insistent about protecting the rights of all of their students.” As an educator working in public schools, I work hard to eradicate my own biases born of upbringing and other forces. This is especially vital in educational settings where I am bound to recognize the federal and legal protections of my students.

As theatre educators, knowing about civil rights protections helps us advocate for transgender students in our programs if and when necessary.

In her chapters “Gender Reorientations” and “Sexual Orientations,” Grady reminds theatre educators that social and cultural constructs inform gender beyond a biological understanding of the sexes. At the time she was writing, promoting heterosexism and condoning homophobic behaviors were norms in classrooms. Though terms like “transgender” and “genderqueer” do not appear in her text, theatre educators can apply her research as we teach students and dialogue with wider school communities that may not be as keen to support the rights of transgender students.

Another educator who shares and promotes the value of inclusivity is Dr. Jennifer Chapman. In her book, The Theatre Kids: Heteronormativity and High School Theatre, she lays a foundation for inclusivity in school theatre programs. Two specific and familiar issues stand out in Chapman’s writing. For one, theatre class and drama club serve as “safe” spaces for students who are different, and perhaps especially for students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Second, teachers and parents often praise these programs for centering students who “don’t fit in” or who don’t excel at sports.

I know every school doesn’t champion inclusivity. The recent Title IX legislation unfortunately further polarizes the rights of students. As theatre educators, knowing about civil rights protections helps us advocate for transgender students in our programs if and when necessary. Meg Greene, Educational Theatre Manager for The SAFE Alliance, states that “it is an oppressive act to not hold ourselves responsible to ethically representing an actor’s gender identities onstage in the same way we (hopefully) represent race and ethnicity.” Racial identity and equality are main issues, and gender identity most certainly has a place at the table. Put directly, we wouldn’t ask a black student to ignore their race, and we shouldn’t ask a transgender student to put aside identity.

An actor in a dress looking off into the distance.

Eve Murray. In Our Shoes by Marel Smietana and Lucas Geiger, performed by The Moonlight Players. Directed by Marel Smietana and Kim Messer. Lighting, Chase Fetherling. Sound Design, Sam Mueller.

It is important to know that United States civil rights issues are at play and in conflict within the recent bills. In an article in Education Week, Evie Blad notes that “education law experts point to a growing body of court decisions that suggest existing federal civil rights laws may protect the rights of transgender students.” In fact, in June the United States Department of Education issued a Notice of Interpretation specifically prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity with regard to Title IX. This followed the Biden administration’s swift action on inauguration day, when President Biden wrote an executive order that cited the United States Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostick v. Clayton County, Georgia. That case holds that a prohibition of sex discrimination written into Title VII, the federal employment law, prohibits unequal treatment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The fight is not new. Artists young and old are familiar with controversy, whether it is pointed at the art or the artists creating it.

Theatre educators, don’t be blindsided. With knowledge, we can help our schools and districts navigate the civil rights and legal issues at hand. There are several ways to advocate when it comes to gender identity and Title IX. Bring the issue up to your fellow theatre teachers, principals, and administrators. If you already have the platform and influence, consider leading the hard work of policy making to ensure equality and inclusion where opportunity, scholarships, and money matters converge. Even if you are not comfortable formally organizing around a particular stance, you can talk to theatre parents to be sure they know the law and any recent local developments that can affect their children. In the interest of school theatre programs and serving all students, we have the chance to lead this conversation proactively instead of reactively.

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