Meeting of the Minds: Gender & Sexuality Diversity

Melissa Tassoni
About our Panel

Jennifer Bryan, Ph.D.
PreK-12 Gender and Sexuality Diversity Consultant, Trainer, Speaker & Author,
Founder and Principal, Team Finch Consultants
Dr. Bryan began her career as an educator, prior to earning her master’s and doctorate in Counseling Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. Since 2001, she has provided specialized gender and sexuality consultation to PreK-12 schools across the country.

Steve Piltch
Head of School, The Shipley School
Serving as Head of School since 1992, Dr. Piltch has always been committed to putting student success and wellbeing at the heart of everything he has done at Shipley. He has served the School and its constituents in an era full of change and growth, continuing to look toward the future and with the health and safety of Shipley students in mind.

Q: Why did Shipley institute a gender and sexuality diversity policy?

Piltch: Our students. We were planning to create a policy, but a number of our students approached me and really accelerated the timeline. Since Shipley is a school that is committed to being the safest and best community we can be for everyone, we took the opportunity to address our students’ questions immediately, with the hope that all of our students, parents, and colleagues could feel as safe, secure, and welcome as possible. Our students were ahead of it and made the difference.

I think our policy is consistent with the school that we strive to be. It’s about providing the appropriate community environment for as many students as we possibly can.

Q: How does the policy fit with Shipley’s focus on student wellness?

Piltch: It’s central to it. Nothing can be done in isolation. It’s all integrated. And I’m confident that when the next gap in the School’s approach to student well-being surfaces, our students will again be ahead of the situation.

Q: Why is it important for schools to implement gender and sexuality diversity policies?

Bryan: Schools have been working with gender and sexuality diversity for as long as people have gathered in the schoolhouse. Even though the idea of formal policies is new, schools have been providing education – in explicit, implicit, conscious, and unconscious ways – forever. We’re catching up with the reality of how much gender and sexuality affect day-to-day school life. It doesn’t matter whether we’re on the playground or at an athletic practice or in biology class, it’s there. It’s there both because of the curriculum, and also because of who we are. Every member of a school community has a biological sex and a gender and a sexuality. We bring those to school every day. Policies are a way to bring more intentionality and more integrity to this work that’s been done all along. Now we’re trying to be proactive and more effective in how we work with these parts of who students are, who teachers are, and who families are.

Q: How can these policies benefit individuals in the community who aren’t transgender, or homo- or bi-sexual?

Bryan: Part of what we’re up against is the idea that there is a normal, and that this is just about a small percentage of students or families. Schools can say we love those students, we love those families, we’re very supportive, but the perspective that schools are spending so much time and so much energy for a very small portion of the population is a fundamental misunderstanding.

I’ll give you an example. If a school calls me and says, “We would love for you to come in and talk to our middle school students; we’ve got some kids who are really struggling with their gender identity,” what I would say is, “I’d love to come talk to your middle school students because every single one of them is in the middle of gender and sexuality identity development.” Those are fundamental, developmental tasks for children in adolescence, no matter what the identity is.

We’re shifting away from thinking that this is about a sub-group, to this is about the healthy identity development of every student. Gender and sexuality are a big part of that, whether you’re in kindergarten trying to figure out what you can wear in the imaginary play corner, or you’re a middle school student with your first crush, or you’re a high school student who may be in some sort of transition in terms of your own understanding of your gender.

You don’t have to be LGBTQ+ to have these be really salient developmental issues. I’m an educator, I’m a psychologist, and from both of those perspectives we’re always thinking about where children are developmentally – cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically. This is part and parcel of that. If you’re a school and you say you work with the whole child, you can’t work with the whole child and leave out gender and sexuality. Again, that’s true for every student. That’s not identity dependent. It’s just the basic task.

Q: What has been the response to Shipley’s policy throughout the community?

Piltch: It has been a non-discussion, really. There could be those who have concerns and who haven’t come forward. But I’ll address a specific piece of it. The policy states that people can use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. If anyone is made uncomfortable by anyone’s use of the bathroom, there are options for people to use private bathrooms. Similarly, you can utilize the locker room of the gender with which you identify. If anyone struggles with that, there are alternative places for individuals to be able to change. We think this approach is the best possible way to acknowledge the complexities of how our students might feel.
I’ve felt fortunate to be the Head of this School for 25 years. I have watched our community grow. This policy feels like a no-brainer. And by that, I don’t mean that it didn’t take any thought. It fits with our well-being initiatives, it fits with our move towards the ongoing growth and importance of emotional literacy, in particular our SEED (Social, Emotional, and Ethical Development) program, and our move towards Positive Education. I think it’s a natural fit for us.

Q: What are some common concerns around schools implementing these policies?

Bryan: There’s a major misconception that if you’re talking about gender and sexuality, then you’re talking about sexual behavior. With older students, that may be true. When we’re talking about it with younger students, it’s about identity, about who we are, the kinds of relationships we’re in, the kinds of families we live in. I think many concerns stem from a basic misunderstanding of this.

It’s hard because we do not have a shared language right now. I do this thing whether I’m working with parents, or teachers, or students. I give them a quiz and I ask them to define sex, gender, and sexuality. Those are words we use all the time, and people have trouble defining them. People define them in a dozen different ways. At our very basic level, we lack the language and the concepts to really engage with this. That’s the starting place. Until there’s that shared understanding, we’re constantly just reacting and assuming. We hear a certain phrase and we say, “Not with my kids. We’re not ready for that.” Let’s get the language and the concepts in hand, then we can have a real conversation. You might still have concerns, but you’ll be better informed to engage in a discussion and make decisions about what our kids need using language that’s shared and accurate.

I think people get very upset, in part, because they misunderstand what it is and because, for some parents, this is territory that they are either uncomfortable with and have been avoiding, or they may have cultural values that dictate when and how they’re going to be talking about these things. If the school is meeting kids where they are and the family is not on some kind of parallel track, that can cause discomfort. If you’re going to explain what transgender identity is here at school, then I have to do that at home. If you’re going to be talking about how it’s okay for a boy to wear nail polish, then I’m going to have to talk about that at the dinner table. Maybe I don’t think that’s what I want my son to do. There’s that as well.

Q: How would you address people who oppose Shipley’s policy and stance on gender and sexuality diversity?

Piltch: Would they want their children ostracized for any reason at all? Probably not. That doesn’t mean everybody’s going to agree with our policy.
I think back to early in my tenure, and former Shipley Headmistress Miss Speer, who was a terrific person and role model for me. The world in 1944, when she came to Shipley, was not the world it was in 1965, when she retired. She and many others in schools like this were ahead of the game in terms of the kinds of issues that were central to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1995, when I was at the 50th reunion of Miss Speer’s first class, she said to an alumna, “I hope you’re still finding a way to support the School.” And the alumna said, rightfully, “But Miss Speer, it’s such a different school than it was when we were here.” Miss Speer responded, and this is the key, “Thank goodness it’s a different school. If it were the same school, you wouldn’t want to have children in it.”

That idea still holds. The school that I have the privilege of being the Head of, in 2017, is not the school I joined in 1992. You didn’t have this discussion. As we strive to fulfill our mission, we want our students to do well and to do good, and we want them develop passion and compassion, curiosity, understanding, and conviction. We want them to have the confidence to speak up, and the initiative, creativity, and where-with-all to make good things happen.

Q: Where do you see this issue in the future?

Bryan: I don’t know. But I feel like the field of education has a real opportunity to provide leadership. Every day kids come to school. While all of this political and legal rumbling is going on, the basic purpose of school hasn’t changed. If we as educators can find a way to inform ourselves and adapt and learn, we would be providing a model for how other domains might approach this in a less contentious – this is right, this is wrong – kind of way. It’s not that there aren’t those differences in a school community, but the thing that everybody has in common is that they really want to do right by the kids.

If that’s the universal organizing value, then I have a lot of faith that schools are already doing this and that we could be a model. I don’t know exactly where we’re headed, but our approach, I think, holds a lot more hope than these court battles about who gets to use which bathroom.

The whole leadership team of a school community has to own these issues because they affect admissions, the physical plant, advancement, everyone. That weaves together a net of support that really then positions greater success. I think that makes a big difference.

Piltch: This is going to continue to be a national issue. The bathrooms and similar facilities are a discussion of the symptom, but the deeper issues revolve around the treatment of people. We need to push ourselves on a regular basis to make sure that we are treating others with the respect, appreciation, and understanding that we espouse. And, we must play a role to help those outside of Shipley do the same! I remember when the Civil Rights Act was signed. We still have all sorts of bigotry, racism, and discrimination that exist. You can look at this in terms of race, religion, or gender. In my ideal world, we would eliminate discrimination on all levels. Although that is neither realistic nor attainable, we all must continue to educate and strive for the goal and hold ourselves accountable for our own community.


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.