Understanding Gender & Sexuality Diversity: Truly Parenting the Whole Child

by Shelley Sommer

Conversations around sexuality and gender have always been complex, but they feel especially challenging in the current cultural environment. With so many of us hearing news from people and websites with a particular point of view, it can be hard to separate opinion from fact. The most important ally right now is someone who can help us to educate ourselves to be more thoughtful, question long held assumptions, and open our minds to new ways of understanding one another. 

Dr. Jennifer Bryan, a nationally recognized expert on gender and sexuality, guided Inly parents and staff through topics central to the healthy identity development during her visit to Inly in late September. Jennifer is a wonderful speaker, deeply knowledgeable about a topic she has studied and spoken about since 2001. At her core, Jennifer believes that all children deserve a safe and inclusive school and her mission is to help parents and teachers navigate the complexity of issues around identity. 

During Thursday evening and Friday morning discussions with parents, she began by encouraging people to ask questions and to think about what it means to parent the “whole child” when everyone has intersecting identities, including race, age, religion, sexual orientation, and culture. “Things are not as predictable as they once were,” she said. “We have entered a time when these issues are more relevant than they were twenty years ago, as issues around identity and culture are more a part of the national conversation.”  

At a professional development session with the faculty, the focus was on the messages children receive from an early age about what it means to be a “boy” or a “girl” — and how to teach children to challenge persistent stereotypes that begin to form the second we are born. We looked critically at our own classrooms and considered places where we need an increased awareness about messages our students receive from both teachers and other students. It’s a process that takes time, but everyone who heard Jennifer’s presentation left with an increased commitment to seeing and teaching children as individuals, rather than their “category.”

Jennifer’s book, From the Dress Up Corner to the Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexual Diversity in Pre-K-12 Schools is available in the Inly Library. The book was published in 2012, but Jennifer is working on a second edition now!

Shelley Sommer, Inly School’s head librarian and Middle School literature teacher, joined Inly after working for 15 years as director of public relations for the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. She holds a B.A. in political science from the University of Dayton and an M.A. in children’s literature from Simmons College. Shelley has written two biographies — “John F. Kennedy: His Life and Legacy” was published in 2005 by HarperCollins Children’s Books, and “Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg” (2011, Boyds Mills Press), was named a 2012 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and a 2012 Boston Authors Club Finalist in the Young Reader category. Every day Shelley inspires the Inly students and staff to read, by sharing her infectious love of books. Her blog about books, Sommer Reading, has a wide public following. She is also a reviewer for the School Library Journal.

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