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Back to School: When Mr. Reuter Becomes ‘Ms. Reuter’


In the Washington DC area, back-to-school sales are underway and summer’s about done. Parents’ inboxes and mailboxes fill with newsy “Get ready for another great year!” letters and long shopping lists of supplies from the PTA. and school principal.

The families of Janney Elementary School, a highly rated DC elementary school in the affluent northwest quadrant of the city, recently received a different sort of back-to-school notice (provided to me by a confidential source). Janney’s principal, Norah Lycknell, announced in a July 17 email to the “Janney Community” that the school’s writing inclusion teacher, the former Mr. Robert Reuter, had declared himself transgender and would now be known as “Ms. Rebecca Reuter (Ms. Reuter to our students).” Principal Lycknell described end-of-year meetings in which Mr. Reuter (as he was known then) “bravely” shared his “powerful and personal story” and his plan to transition to a new gender identity.

The principal’s email informs parents that Teacher Reuter’s announcement gave rise to “wise wonderings,” and “months of thought and planning” in consultation with a “wide scope of educators, experts, and partners,” about how the school community should put its values of “equity,” “inclusion,” and “caring” into practice. “[A]ll children and adults in Janney’s community,” says Lycknell, need to know that “they will be embraced regardless of their subtle and explicit identities.”

Case Study in LGBT School Activism

Stripped of its emotional puffery, Lycknell’s email provides a case study of how LGBT activists are foisting ideological conformity on America’s school children, re-educating them in gender and sexuality according to queer theory. Current LGBT campaigns advocate—relentlessly and aggressively—on behalf of “transgender” individuals, portraying them as perfectly normal people whose gender identities just don’t happen to match their “assigned sex” at birth.

Lycknell’s ‘guidelines’ for parents line up with the Left’s orthodoxy. Point by point, they read like a sampler from an “Indoctrination 101” toolkit (officially, “The Welcoming Schools” Starter Kit, peddled to schools across the country by the Human Rights Campaign). And Lycknell demonstrates well how left-leaning, government-funded employees effectively impose LGBT “groupthink” on impressionable schoolchildren and their well-meaning parents, effectively silencing the opposing views of other parents, faith leaders, and the community at large.

Control the Language, Control the Debate

Lycknell’s email insists early on that discussions about gender employ a precise vocabulary. In paragraphs headlined “The Language of Gender Transition” and “Conversations at Home,” she summarizes the Left’s gender propaganda. Two millennia of philosophical, scientific, and religious perspectives simply vanish in Lycknell’s dogmatic presentation of gender as a social construct and gender identity as a feeling-based reality disconnected from a person’s biological sex. Drawing heavily from the Human Rights Campaign’s “Welcoming Schools” project, Lycknell presents queer theory as fact, the sign of an “increasingly diverse and honest world.”

Gender theorists believe that, freed from the confining “gender binary” (male and female categories) of their “assigned” birth sex, transgender individuals can “affirm” their deeply felt authentic identities. Reuter, for example, can affirm her “real” identity through a range of transition options, from “social” (assuming opposite-sex name and appearance) to “medical” (taking opposite-sex hormones in order to affect secondary sex characteristics such hair growth, breast size, and voice pitch) to “surgical” (removing or adding breast tissue, genitalia, and an Adam’s apple).

The Script for ‘Know-Nothing’ Parents

Lycknell reminds parents of the goal—to help children “broadly recognize gender as a continuum with many ways to express oneself as a person.” (How is it that Reuter’s decision to transition gives the public school the right—with taxpayer funds—to impose its preferred viewpoint, that physical sex and gender identity have no intrinsic connection and that “male and female” are junk categories to be replaced by the “gender spectrum”?) Giving children the Left’s “language of sex and gender,” says Lycknell, is “empowering” for them and provides “meaning and context” for schoolwide discussions. Lycknell’s email “strongly recommend[s]” that parents begin now to discuss sex, gender, and gender transitions with their children, to provide “space and time” for them “to safely process what may be a previously unknown way of considering the gradients between sex and gender.” (“Previously unknown” means “newly-invented,” by the way.)

Most parents, even in liberal-leaning upper northwest DC, are probably not well-versed in queer theory. So Lycknell encourages parents to “be comfortable with not knowing…the answer to every question” and to “be transparent about the things you do not yet know, for true inclusion is often about curiosity—being comfortable with seeking answers about the unknown.” Put differently, parents who think they’ve got gender and sexuality figured out, perhaps according to a religious perspective or simple common sense, risk outing themselves as opponents of “true inclusion.” Lycknell advises parents who embrace the “unknown” to “grow your own understanding and…explore the resources provided” in her email. In other words, she’s got the answers for you. The resource list included in Lycknell’s email includes videos and books for adults, children, and teens—all completely one-sided, a string of progressive, LGBT links and resources that admit no alternative points of view.

Lycknell even encourages parents to “rehearse” and “consider scripting” what they tell their children, avoiding the “temptation to introduce history or perceptions that are not yet part of our children’s wonderings.” No surprise here—her email functions as a ready script, with “key terms” defined according to the Left’s dictionary, with no mention of contradictory “history” or “perceptions.”

Schoolroom Indoctrination and the Cult of Experts

After dictating the language of the “dialogue,” and scripting parents to follow her lead, Lycknell’s letter gives the specifics of how Reuter’s “transition” will be handled at school, where students range from four to eleven years of age (pre-K through fifth grade). The school will proactively “reintroduce” Reuter to her current (third grade) and past (fifth grade) students, and use a less formal process to address other students’ questions. “In all settings,” according to Lycknell, “our approach will be similar to the one suggested for conversations at home, focusing on an individual’s story, the language of sex and gender, and an environment that welcomes questions, adjusted to the developmental stages of our students.”

The ever-helpful Lycknell tells parents she is “more than happy” to connect families to the gender identity “experts” that the school has brought on board. These experts, she reassures parents, “are ready to address any question without judgment.”

But the deck is stacked against Janney parents or staff who might be looking for unbiased, sensible advice or for guidance that respects Judeo-Christian moral traditions. Lycknell omits from her email some particularly salient information: she and the recommended experts are personally and professionally invested in LGBT causes. Lycknell is a lesbian who “married” her partner in a Canadian ceremony in 2008. Her designated experts include Khadijah Tribble, a lesbian activist, Diana Bruce, a “Shero of the Movement” award winner (given to DC “lesbian, bisexual and transgender women” who advance the LGBT cause), and a social worker, Michael A. Giordano, who self-identifies as “a cisgender, kink and poly aware therapist” with an interest in “leather.”

Giordano, a gender identity specialist, deserves special mention. Parents ought to know he thinks that, “Queer is, indeed, the new Cool.” He also believes morality is “subjective” and that folks who are “transgender, bisexual, lesbian, or gay or others trying to accept their interest in polyamory or BDSM [kinky sex] and other kinks” are “good, moral people.” In fact, “their gender identity, sexual orientation, patterns of love, or sexual desires have nothing to do with morality. They just ‘are.’”

It’s true Giordano is a recognized expert—he’s scheduled to speak at next week’s Sexual Freedom Summit, a national event that promotes “sexual freedom” as “one of the highest human aspirations and the foundation of all human rights, the cornerstone for all our civil liberties…[a] source and prerequisite for much, if not all, that motivates human beings.” (The Summit’s sponsors include the usual lefty heavyweights: the International Planned Parenthood Federation and leading LGBT and sexuality organizations.)

A post on Giardano’s blog offers his take on gender identity—and a glimpse of the ideology flourishing at Janney Elementary. Giordano writes:

So what is a real man?…If you identify as a man—you are a man. Men look and act in many different ways and experience all the range of emotions.  They have all kinds of hobbies, from sewing to hockey.  Some have penises. Some don’t. Some have always been seen by others as men. Others used to live life as girls. My proposal is that we accept this and move on.

This, in effect, is what Janney Elementary is saying to parents: Get with the program, fundamental transformation in process.

Major Questions Entirely Unanswered

But the school leaves major questions unanswered; what Lycknell doesn’t say about Reuter’s transition is almost as instructive as what she does say.

  • The principal’s email, for example, says nothing about bathroom and locker room issues. Will the former Mr. Reuter share a bathroom with young girls, female teachers or female staff? How does the Janney administration plan to respect the feelings and privacy of all members of its community?
  • Will parents be consulted about Reuter’s assignments, or have the opportunity to request a different placement for their child if they believe daily interaction with the transitioning Reuter will be confusing or upsetting to their child? Last year, for example, then-Mr. Reuter coached the boys’ fourth-grade basketball team. Will the new Ms. Reuter coach the boys? Will Ms. Reuter have responsibility for other activities or clubs?
  • Will Reuter undergo merely a “social transition” or more extensive medical or surgical changes? During the medical transition phase, Reuter is likely to retain certain male secondary sex characteristics, at least for a while, but wants to be called “she” and, presumably, plans to wear female clothing. How will the school respect the naturally ambivalent—but politically incorrect—feelings that some children may have towards Reuter? Will children be expected to override any natural confusion, discomfort, or wariness that results from seeing their male teacher decked out as a woman, or from observing the incongruence between facial hair and lipstick, for example?
  • Does the school’s rush to embrace Reuter’s transition create an unsafe situation by brushing off or stigmatizing the negative feelings some children might experience around Reuter? Child safety protocols teach children to pay attention to their natural instincts and to “tell someone” when they feel uncomfortable in the presence of particular adults. But negative feelings in reaction to Reuter have been invalidated by the Left’s declaration of transgender normalcy. Does the Janney staff expect the youngest students—far too young to process intellectually the concepts of gender transition—to override their interior perceptions that something is not quite right about the apparent Ms. Reuter? When it comes to transgendered persons, will children’s feelings no longer count? Or will children be “re-educated” until they learn to repress, disregard, or change those feelings?
  • What if a child has an “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment, shouting out something like, “That’s not a lady. That’s a man.” Will ‘the powers that be’ discipline or “re-educate” the little tyke (will counseling be required?) until such transparently correct but politically unpalatable thoughts are banished forever?

These questions are not yet part of the public discussion. In fact, public discussion of the situation is clearly frowned upon at Janney Elementary. Lycknell writes of the need to balance “a larger conversation” with Reuter’s “privacy,” but wants to limit “these conversations” to the school’s planned meetings with students and “direct communication,” as needed, between individual parents and the school’s professional “experts.” As a result, Lycknell discourages Janney parents from using “listservs or similar public forums” to discuss the situation, lest the open forum “deteriorate this balance.”

There’s no doubt Lycknell runs a tight ship. But on this issue, her tight control and soft coercion are creating an intimidating, potentially hostile environment for families that hold time-honored, well-reasoned beliefs about the integral connection between a person’s biological sex and gender identification and the unity of the person (body and soul).

Who wants to be the lonely parental voice contesting the school’s wholesale adoption of the Human Rights Campaign’s “language of sex and gender,” presented as “fact” by the lesbian principal and her gender “experts”? (Especially when there’s little chance parental complaints would receive a fair hearing.) Parents will have reason to fear that if they teach their child traditional views of sex and gender, then their child will face name-calling, labeling (“bigot”), or retaliation, in light of the “overwhelming…support already expressed for Ms. Reuter” by the Janney school community.” And Lycknell’s orchestration of the community “dialogue” on gender effectively deprives parents who disagree with her of any voice in the matter, leaving them to wonder how a man whose views on sex, gender, polyamory, and kinky sex are so far outside the mainstream became the school’s go-to expert on gender identity. Even LGBT-supportive parents ought to be up in arms over the school’s suppression of open discussion.

And suppression it is. “Sit down and shut up, please” seems to be the message at Janney Elementary. (It’s a polite school.) The guardians of tolerance can’t tolerate dissent—or even a few tough questions.

Mary Rice Hasson is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center Washington. D.C.