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How To Cast Gender Non-Conforming Kids In High School Plays? Ask Them.

Atherton High student Emily Sledge applies a fake beard on fellow student Thyme Martin.

Emily Sledge carefully attaches fake beards to her classmates' jawlines using spirit gum, preparing them for their roles as villagers in Atherton High School's production of "The Crucible."

"It's very itchy," said Thyme Martin, crinkling their nose.

Thyme said it's not a very big deal to be wearing the beard and portraying a man in the play -- although they were assigned female at birth, they have been using the gender-neutral pronoun "they" for several years and have been able to choose to audition for either male and female roles in their high school theater productions.

"I think that's really important, because even in theater where you're playing a different person, the character that you're playing kind of becomes a part of yourself," Thyme said.

As society becomes more welcoming of many gender identities, more kids are coming out as trans or non-binary at a young age. That is posing new considerations for how a high school play might be cast.

Atherton High junior Elliot Wiley said it was a little complicated when he first came out as a trans boy, because he had already been cast as the youngest sister Lucy in the school's production of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

"I experienced a lot of dysphoria surrounding feminine things, being called a girl, stuff like that," Elliot said.

But he said his classmates and director helped ease his social transition, and he was able to "get through it and still have a good experience."

"Backstage everyone was very accepting. Nobody called me 'she' unless I was in the role of Lucy," Elliot said.

Elliot said it felt affirming when he got to play his first male role onstage. He felt connected to the character in a different way.

"It was also the first time in quite a while that I was myself both onstage and off," Elliot said. "It wasn’t like when I took off the costume, I had to stop going by male pronouns and that was really, really cool."

The welcoming environment Wiley has experienced within his high school theater department isn't always the norm. In a large , national survey the Human Rights Campaign conducted of LGBTQ youth, only 27 percent of LGBTQ youth say they can "definitely" be themselves in school.

The Key To Gendered Casting is Communication

For Atherton High theater director Shelby Steege, it's important to provide her gender non-conforming students with a level of safety and comfort. She said creating that "safe space" for students takes communication.

Comprehensive data is scarce on whether more youth are coming out as gender non-conforming, but teachers have been noticing a general trend of more kids identifying as LGBTQ at younger ages.

"It certainly feels like that's the case," said Steege, who has taught for 19 years.

The current cohort of actors at Atherton High includes three gender non-conforming students. Steege has a simple system for casting students with respect to gender: during auditions she allows all students to select which genders they would like to perform.

Steege said she has also talked to students about how they want their name printed in the program. Some trans or non-binary students might prefer to list their birth name (also sometimes referred to as their "dead name") instead of the name they commonly use, depending on whether they are out to all their family members. The Human Rights Campaign survey found LGBTQ youth often vary the level to which they're out among parents, grandparents, teachers, friends and others.

Steege also said she would not consider choosing to perform a play that uses cross-dressing as a joke, a relatively common gag among high school plays.

"I stay away from that humor because for some people it's not funny," Steege said.

Atherton High student Star Amaya identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. Star says they appreciate the steps Steege has taken -- especially that she always checks in with students personally about what makes them comfortable.

"I feel, I guess, considered, and thought about. And that means a lot," Star said. "I always feel safe here, because if someone thinks there’s going to be a problem, I’m asked. It’s not just assumed."


Liz Schlemmer is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.