Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

Jennifer Bryan ’83

Psychologist Jennifer Bryan ’83 works with teachers and students to create accepting environments for gay students in schools. (courtesy Jennifer Bryan ’83)

April 18, 2007:

PROFILE - Jennifer Bryan ’83
Making it OK to be gay

When Jennifer Bryan ’83 and her partner, Margaret Babbott, tried to find bedtime stories to read their son and daughter a few years ago, they found few books that showed a family like theirs.

The books they did find about gay families, like Heather Has Two Mommies, “explained or defended” same-sex parents, says Bryan, a psychologist in Northampton, Mass. “But I just wanted a lovely, magical bedtime story in which the fact that the boy has two moms is incidental to the tale.”

So she wrote one. In A Different Dragon (Two Lives Publishing, 2006), Noah, a boy named after Bryan’s son, meets a dragon. But rather than breathing fire, the beast cries, stressed by the pressures of being fierce all the time. He and Noah instead play badminton and eat ice cream. The message: It’s OK to be different, and to not fulfill other people’s expectations.

That message reverberates through Bryan’s daily life. Besides her private psychology practice, she consults with schools on issues of gender identity, sexual orientation, and gay/lesbian families. An English major at Princeton and a former English teacher, Bryan conducts teacher training, facilitates discussions with parents, and runs student programs. “The goal is to help all members of a school community — teachers, parents, students — engage in open conversation about a topic that is complex, contradictory, and uncomfortable to talk about,” says Bryan. In discussions with students, Bryan tries to get them to open up. “They ask how you know that you’re gay, how my kids feel about having gay moms, have I ever been discriminated against,” says Bryan.

Bryan gives teachers the latest research on topics such as the effects of bullying and homophobia on school climate, and shows teachers how to create an accepting campus environment for gay students. For example, if a second-grade boy’s gender expression is not stereotypically masculine, a teacher can help him with his development and keep an eye out for teasing, she says. In class, a teacher can “provide stories and images that say that’s OK,” says Bryan. “You ask, Why can’t girls fix cars? Why can’t boys do ballet? You challenge the indoctrination.”

Bryan speaks from the heart. Society didn’t always approve of her tomboy ways. At 8, she won a bike at a school raffle and chose the boy’s model, with racing flames and a banana seat, over the girl’s, which had streamers and a basket. “When I went up to accept my prize, I remember this nervous titter of laughter in the audience,” she recalls. “It was a crystallizing moment, when I remember thinking there was something not okay about this.”

Bryan got a similar vibe at Princeton, where the atmosphere and her own hesitation made her keep her sexual identity to herself. “I was certainly not strong enough to be one of the handful of openly gay and lesbian people on campus,” says Bryan.

Today, Bryan is encouraged by Princeton’s new Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Center, which opened in 2005.

“That center might have made an enormous difference to me, in my own acceptance and development,” she says. “But that’s the difference, at Princeton and in society, between 1983 and 2007.” P

By Alicia Brooks Waltman

Alicia Brooks Waltman is a freelance writer in Hopewell, N.J.