Education & Family

Identity Crisis

In the face of a growing gender revolution, single-sex schools struggle to create new protocols.

This past June, on the graduation stage of a prominent local all-girls independent private school, there was yet another indisputable signal that we are in the midst of a profound, fundamental cultural correction in regard to how we collectively understand gender and identity. For the first time in the school’s 134-year history, amid the gleeful throng of beaming graduates in white dresses, a young man, Will McClelland, dressed in an understated creme-colored suit, became the first openly transgender student to graduate from The Bryn Mawr School.

But it was complicated. It still is complicated. And it is the harbinger of the arrival of the single most important and defining issue confronting all-boys and all-girls private schools in generations.

Across the United States and around the globe, the leadership of single-gender independent schools are grappling with how to reconcile their missions with a new generation that demands to live and be seen for who they are, not who they are told to be. While society’s long overdue recognition of the trans and non-binary community, a historically marginalized sector of the population, is a step forward in social progress, this recognition presents a unique nexus of extraordinary challenges within the isolated realms of Baltimore’s many independent, single-gender schools. Here, throughout the tight-knit community of prestigious single-gender private schools—specifically, Roland Park Country School, Boy’s Latin, Bryn Mawr, St. Paul’s School for Boys, St. Paul’s School for Girls, Oldfields, St. Timothy’s, Gilman, Garrison Forest—heads of schools, administrators, and counselors are scrambling to adapt to a fundamental cultural paradigm shift unimaginable to their institutional founders. Are these schools ready for this? Their parents? Teachers? Alumni? How about their boards of directors? These are all powerful forces, and they are colliding at very high speed.

“The world is changing—with or without these schools,” explains Jabari Lyles, the first full-time LGBTQ Affairs Liaison with the Baltimore City Mayor’s Office. “Schools are responsible to our kids and to our society for keeping up.”

The gender revolution is toppling the longstanding binary status quo with astonishing rapidity. “The transgender movement was one of the first social justice and diversity issues to come of age in the social media era,” explains Julie Mencher, a renowned therapist, policy consultant, and trainer on LGBTQ issues based out of Northhampton, Massachusetts. “As a result, the pace of public awareness, trans visibility, and social change has been viral.”

From corporate boardrooms to the halls of government, outdated gender binary policies and perceptions are being hastily jettisoned to accommodate change. Culturally speaking, we have already crossed the Rubicon of integrating transgender acceptance—and rejecting the traditional gender binary—into the mainstream.

Transgender role models such as Olympian Caitlyn Jenner and actress Laverne Cox are more visible than ever, and American brands have begun to recognize the new zeitgeist. A recent campaign for Gillette features a father teaching his transgender son how to shave. Airlines are proudly touting third gender options in their bookings. Leaders from the LGBTQ community are running for public office across the country, including Congress.

And while social media has certainly fuel–ed the dizzying pace of the gender revolution, this massive shift in the cultural landscape can also be attributed to a far more simple truth: the transgender community is—and always has been—everywhere. They are our parents, students, co-workers, teachers, friends, brothers, and sisters. Their voices have merely—and finally—been amplified.

Although both all-boys and all-girls schools are on a steep learning curve, Will McClelland’s graduation from Bryn Mawr represents part of a larger country-wide trend highlighting how the all-girl institutions are reacting with greater alacrity and agility than their all-boy counterparts.

“It’s true that girls’ schools are way ahead of [boys’ schools] in considering trans inclusion,” says Mencher. “I see it as partly about identity and partly about practicality: Quite differently from boys’ schools, the very identity of most girls’ schools has historically included a social justice mission of expanding traditional notions around gender. Girls’ schools have offered safe harbor for girls to pursue education, achievement, and ambition, free from the gendered—and often sexist—choreography of a coed environment.”

“Our ideas of what it means to be a boy have expanded quite a bit . . . and that’s a good thing.”

In an email, Sue Sadler, the Head of School at Bryn Mawr, echoes that sentiment: “For 135 years, Bryn Mawr has tried to even the field for an underrepresented group: girls!” she writes. “Over time, the school has become more inclusive of race, religion, and sexual orientation, and gender is the new frontier of inclusion. As our understanding of gender expands from binary terms of ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ to a spectrum of gender expression, we have to examine what the definition of ‘all-girls’ is. Fortunately, we’ve always had a wide range of ways to be a girl.”

Across the country, many prestigious sec–ondary all-girls schools, such as Los Angeles’ Marlborough School and Manhattan’s The Nightingale-Bamford School, The Brearley School, and The Spence School, have already taken action and issued revised, explicit policies and guidelines. Marlborough and Nightingale now have policies that will consider “any applicant who identifies as female, including those assigned male at birth.”

So far, Bryn Mawr has no explicit policy. “At this time, we prefer practices to policies,” writes Sadler. “We’ve addressed the uniform codes and campus facilities such as gender-neutral bathrooms. We continue to educate our community on transgender topics and discuss how to best serve our students with faculty, trustees, and families. Fortunately, there is a lot of latitude in how this can be implemented, and we try very hard to serve both the student and the mission.”

While non-binary and trans students in all-girls spaces may benefit from their schools’ emphasis on empowerment, all-boys schools are inherently different—and differently complicated. Boys who do not identify as cisgender, a term for anyone who identifies as a gender consistent with the sex they were assigned at birth, must reckon with an environment in which social pressures to uphold traditional tropes of masculinity are acutely exacerbated.

Henry Smyth, headmaster of Gilman School, an all-boys school in Roland Park, oversees more than 1,000 students from pre-K-12. He is keenly aware of the inherent challenges of leading an all-boys institution. The table in his office is strewn with a toppled mountain of summer reading—all books related to educating boys, what it means to be a boy, and how to crack longstanding myths about boyhood.

“What these discussions about genderfluidity have allowed to happen is for us to continue to figure out how the definition of what it means to be a boy can be expanded to include as many different types of boys as possible,” Smyth says. “Our ideas of what it means to be a boy have expanded quite a bit over the past 50 years. And it’s expanded even faster over the last 15 years. And that’s a good thing.”

The pressing question becomes how these
schools approach the retention of students who, in developing their own sense of self, identify as a gender that’s wholly at odds with the school’s single-gender mission.

“In my own thinking, I’ve been making a distinction between guidelines and policy,” notes Smyth. “Because part of what I’ve heard loud and clear from other schools and organizations who’ve been looking into this as well is that having hard and fast policies is not the way to go. There are going to be such great variables in each person’s different story and path. So, what might be more helpful is that we have guidelines that reaffirm what we believe in as a school and that provide the right sorts of questions to be asking, and what areas need addressing when making the right decision for a particular student.”

Presently, the single-gender private schools in the Baltimore area we spoke to are all operating on similar informal, case-by-case bases when it comes to individual students. This allows institutions the flexibility to consider and navigate the constellation of variables involved in a new sphere they concede they are still coming to understand.

It also preserves the school’s right to remove a transgender student solely on the basis that their identity has strayed beyond the confines of their school’s single-gender mission.

For LGBTQ advocates, the passive “case-by-case” approach is often unfavorably compared to the notorious Clinton-era “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy for gay members of the armed forces and has been sharply criticized for placing an additional strain on young adolescents who, if struggling with their gender identity, may already be shouldering a mighty emotional burden.

“We’re forcing kids to make a decision or reconcile or compromise their identity for their community—and that’s terrible,” says Lyles. He says the kids are given a near-impossible choice: “[They] have to either pick, ‘I’m going to pick who I’m going to be’ or ‘I’m going to pick where I’m going to be because I feel safe.’” He adds that the case-by-case approach can work, but only if the goal is manifestly “to do what’s in the best interest of the student.”

Adding another layer of complication, it is not uncommon for transgender students to wish to remain in their single-gender schools—even if the school is not the “right” place for them anymore. Over time they have created a safe space for themselves in these schools. Some, like Will McClelland, have not been affirmed by their own families, and so the ties they have forged within their school community—a critical support network of trusted classmates, allies, counselors, and teachers—often provides one of their only safe havens. “I always felt a lot more comfortable at Bryn Mawr than I did at home,” says McClelland.

Although his experience was oftentimes difficult, when asked how he would feel if he’d been asked to leave Bryn Mawr, McClelland, in a matter-of-fact manner, replies, “I would’ve been devastated. My whole life was there.”

“I would feel hurt to be torn away from my friends . . . because of something I did not choose.”

Echoing that sentiment is Steve Chan*, a transgender boy currently enrolled in a prominent local private girls’ school. “I feel it is not the school’s place to make those decisions for students,” he says. “If a student is having personal issues because of their gender identification in a school, there should be every opportunity for them to change schools, but it should always be the student’s decision. Being transgender already made me personally feel as though my entire world shifted around without my consent, and one of the things that has helped me get through this has been the existing relationships I had with friends and teachers from my school; taking that away from students without their choice would be harmful and unnecessary.”

Chan has attended his school since kindergarten and is now entering his senior year. “I would feel hurt to be torn away from my friends and existing relationships because of something I cannot change and did not choose,” he says.

Others contend that while reserving the right to remove transgender students from a school might preserve the purity of its single-sex mission—and mollify powerful old-guard stakeholders—it also risks reinforcing the long history of marginalization suffered by non-cisgender students within their school communities.

“The mission of single-sex schools is grounded in the gender binary,” Mencher says, “so it does require some thoughtful study and policy consideration for a school to be able to acknowledge that gender is a spectrum, that anatomical sex does not determine gender identity, that gender identity can be fluid, and that gender identity is self-affirmed, not assigned by others. These schools have stepped up quickly, but they understandably have further to go.”

No matter what schools do, what remains indisputable is that, “[Along] with providing the best environment for learning . . . the primary and most fundamental responsibility of the schools, even above mission, is providing for the safety and well-being of their students,” says Lyles. “And when talking about the transgender community, safety and well-being is a very serious concern.”

Of the more than 6,400 transgender and gender non-conforming people who responded to a joint study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA School of Law, 41 percent said they attempted suicide at some point in their lifetime—an alarming rate, especially in comparison to the rate of the general public, which is 4.6 percent.

Those who identify as transgender are also at significantly higher risk of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and other mental health concerns than their non-trans peers. The data connecting these disturbingly disproportionate rates of self-harm, addiction, and mental health issues in the transgender community can be directly linked to the stigma and discrimination still suffered by many—bullying, harassment, family rejection, and outright violence. Schools have a moral and professional obligation to create and continually foster safe spaces for all their students, including those who identify as gender non-conforming.

The critical importance of how we treat these children is further underscored in a recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that stridently urges the support and caretaking of transgender and gender-diverse children and adolescents. The AAP “encourages families, schools, and communities to value every child for who they are in the present, even at a young age,” while assuring them that “transgender identities and diverse gender expressions are normal aspects of human diversity,” reads the statement.

“I’ve seen over and over how trans kids who lack family support can find a lifeline with a trusted teacher or school administrator. That can make all the difference,” says Mencher. “But if the topic of gender diversity is never discussed at schools, gender-questioning and trans students are likely to stay silent rather than reach out for help. I worry much more about the trans students we don’t know about than the [ones] we do.”

To that end, “Schools must take the lead in educating their entire communities—not just faculty and students, but parents as well,” says Mencher. “Because, although few in numbers, these children are everywhere.”

Smyth acknowledges the truth in this sentiment. “There’s more ground to be broken, and more understanding to be had and reached,” he says.

To remain inclusive and relevant, every aspect of a school—from facilities, to dress codes, to athletics, to the words they use—will have to be reassessed in an entirely new context. New campus cultures will emerge. Every school will have its own journey along the path of how they come to embrace and affirm LGBTQ students. They will have to harken back to the ruptures of the civil rights era to find a corollary paradigm shift of such immense proportions.

As for Will McClelland—after posting an A- average, joining the ice hockey team, serving as Arts Council President, leading the campus Gay-Straight Alliance, living and speaking his advocacy for the LGBTQ community on campus, and even making some history—he’s looking forward, with youthful anticipation, to his freshman year at the University of Michigan, where he will be able to live his true identity completely and openly and have the freedom to be just “be myself.”

*This student’s real name and school have been withheld to protect privacy.