Examining Healthy Relationships, Gender, and Sexuality

Students explore healthy relationships, faculty learn about supporting LGBTQIA+ perspectives with the Human Rights Campaign.

We all live in relationships—familial, romantic, platonic, professional, and on and on. Each relationship has the capacity to profoundly affect our sense of self and self-worth. Some relationships build us up, some tear us down. On Tuesday, October 5, Upper Schoolers participated in a half-day Healthy Relationships Conference to understand how to create positive relationships in their lives, with much of the focus being on gender dynamics—a topic that carried into a professional development session for faculty and staff later that day.

Former NFL player Don McPherson, who is now an outspoken expert on and advocate for gender equity and the author of You Throw Like a Girl: The Blind Spot of Masculinity, was the keynote speaker. He discussed what he calls “aspirational masculinity.”

“I don’t like the term ‘toxic masculinity,’” he began, noting that he prefers the term “aspirational masculinity.” “We talk about [toxic masculinity] historically because of issues with violence against women, and men have not been involved in the conversation.” Put simply, violence against women was considered a problem for women to deal with. “But we won’t grow if we don’t do anything about it,” McPherson said. He suggested that the silence and inaction of men on topics of sexual violence are forms of privilege that should be reexamined.

McPherson referred to what he perceived as a general lack of male involvement in raising awareness about and the prevention of sexual assault. In his time growing up, rarely would there be discussion about what he calls the “wholeness of men,” positive sexual relationships, and language—especially the language used to define masculinity in relation to others and sexual violence. Especially during his time as a quarterback at Syracuse University and with various professional teams in both the NFL and the Canadian Football League, the locker room culture was devoid of active discussions regarding these topics. Neglecting the conversation is damaging when it pertains to boys, who may benefit from reflections on empathy to help shape positive relationships in the future.

He described an incident when he was once at a restaurant with two female friends. A car, which looked like that of an accused sex offender and murderer who was at the time wanted and at large, pulled up in front. “I will never forget the look on their faces,” McPherson said. “It was imminent fear.

“My indifference was my privilege. My privilege prevented me from being a better friend to them.”

“My response to them was: ‘You’re cool. You’re safe,’” he continued. “But what did I know? I knew he wouldn’t come after me. My indifference to their fear made them feel less safe,” he said. “My indifference was my privilege. My privilege prevented me from being a better friend to them.”

Students then attended breakout sessions on topics that included cultivating self-respect and maintaining closeness when dealing with complex power dynamics; healthy masculinity; preventing sexual harassment and assault; and navigating awkward interactions with peers and adults.

Upper School Counselor Patrice Copeland and Endowed Director of Equity, Justice, and Community Natalie Randolph ’98 were part of the team that organized the events. “In an environment where students are constantly expanding their sense of community and knowledge of the human condition, the counseling team is inspired daily to educate the community at large on developments in the ever-growing science of the social constructs by which we define ourselves,” said Copeland.  “One of those social constructs is gender, and intertwined in the concept of gender is a set of rules by which we interact with one another.

“Many students felt as if they gained at least one takeaway— but that’s one takeaway multiplied by the greater student body,” Copeland said. “Staff and faculty who proctored workshops were also able to bring information gleaned to the afternoon of professional development, which took place immediately following the conference for students. This is how we enhance and continue the work.”

Inclusive Language, Avoiding Assumptions, and Creating a Welcoming, Safe Community

And the work continued nearly immediately, as faculty and staff used the afternoon for professional development to discuss supporting students and colleagues who may be questioning or who identify as LGBTQIA+.

Trustee Camilo Acosta ’02 joined trustee Cat Dawson ’04 via Zoom for a panel discussion about identifying as LGBTQIA+, along with six faculty members who currently serve in advisory roles for Equity, Justice, and Community (EJC)  programs. Upper School EJC Coordinator Sarah Markovits, Center for Ethical Leadership Coordinator Alex McCoy ’04, Lower School Music Instructor and Pride coordinator Matthew Stensrud, Upper School English Instructor and Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) advisor Zach Harvat, and Middle School Academic Support Coordinator and Rainbow Alliance advisor Ali Hecimovich, all joined in person to provide firsthand perspectives. Additionally, Auxiliary Programs Coordinator Jaye Ebanks assisted with planning but was unable to attend.

“I played football at Sidwell Friends and in college for a year, but doing so came with preconceptions,” Acosta said as he described the experience of having assumptions made about him based on what sport he played. Such assumptions tinted relationships with teachers, friends, and teammates. “There are pros and cons to ‘passing’” Acosta added, referring to the notion that one presents the identity of or affinity with a dominant or privileged group in order to stay unnoticed, while internally identifying differently either a gender or a sexual orientation.“It makes it difficult to be your true self.”

Dawson, whose pronouns are they/them/their, discussed the importance of inclusive language, especially during a time when students are discovering so much about themselves. Dawson touched upon the benefits of proactively asking people what their pronouns are to avoid assumptions and being mindful of using less gendered language—for example, saying “spouse” instead of “wife” or “husband.”

“Just remember, someone may be passing, but may not be comfortable in how they are passing,” Dawson said. They described two tools in the Quaker practice that can be useful: using “Friends” as a gender-inclusive term (instead of using “you guys” when addressing a mixed-gender group, or even using “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls,” which are phrases that erase any nonbinary students) and the practice of queries. “If we continue to center on the process of asking and sharing, we are on a good path.”

The faculty panel all spoke about the power teachers have to create a supportive environment for students and colleagues who may be questioning their gender or sexuality. They reminded colleagues that the LGBTQIA+ community is not a monolith and includes several different identities and communities. They mentioned the importance of being honest with and open to students, sharing that doing so can make a difference in a young person’s life. Acosta suggested that teachers and coaches “be cognizant” that in every class there may be someone who identifies with an LGBTQIA+ identity but has yet to come out.

“As a teacher we are assumed to have all the answers,” said Harvat. “You may not have answers all the time, and that’s okay. We can still create an environment where students feel comfortable. It shows you care.”

"You may not have answers all the time, and that’s okay. We can still create an environment where students feel comfortable. It shows you care.”After the panel, faculty and staff attended division-specific training facilitated by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Welcoming Schools initiative, learning specific language and techniques to best meet the students’ needs at their level. Among other resources, teachers of younger students discussed gender identity and expression through the use of a “gender snowperson” worksheet: The top sphere represents gender identity, or how one feels about one’s self; the middle represents sexual orientation, or who someone loves; and the bottom represents the sex assigned to a person at birth. Teachers in the Middle and Upper Schools learned age-appropriate ways to discuss sex and gender, as well as techniques to ensure that their classrooms and the School overall is an inclusive and safe place for every student.

“This professional development was important because this topic has not been explored in depth from an institutional standpoint,” said Endowed Director of Equity, Justice, and Community Natalie Randolph ’98. “We want to be sure to bring attention and awareness. Our students are ahead of us as adults in this area, and we owe it to them to be both well informed and supportive of their multiple identities, perspectives, and needs.”

Overall, it was a day of reflection for students, faculty, and staff—not only learning about sexuality, gender, and healthy relationships, but of learning what kind of work lies ahead of the Sidwell Friends community. Randolph often says that such work may be “messy and uncomfortable,” but the end result will be a more thoughtful, compassionate, and understanding community.

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