GLSEN Founder, Now Obama Pick, Is Lightning Rod for the Right

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday September 30, 2009

Social and religious conservatives have seized on Obama's pick for assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, smearing GLSEN founder Kevin Jennings with labels ranging from anti-religious "bigot" to "foulmouthed" agent dedicated to "promoting homosexuality" in schools, and insinuating that he approves of pedophilia.

In one right-wing account, posted Sept. 29 at, Jennings was compared to Roman Polanski the film director whose alleged sexual encounter with an under-aged girl four decades ago recently led to his arrest.

The Red article made the claim that Jennings' appointment was proof that the Obama administration is "taking the position that statutory rape is of no great consequence and should, if the child consents, be encouraged."

Much of the controversy stems from an episode in Jennings' earlier career as a school teacher when he heard that a 15-year-old student had met an older man in a public restroom.

In "One Teacher in 10," Jennings' 1994 autobiographical account as a gay teacher in a GLBT-hostile school system, Jennings recalled that he asked a student what was troubling him, and "Out spilled a story about his involvement with an older man he had met in Boston.

"I listened, sympathized, and offered advice," Jennings wrote.

"He left my office with a smile on his face that I would see every time I saw him on the campus for the next two years, until he graduated."

A tape made of Jennings speaking in 2000 purportedly contains Jennings referring to the same student when he allegedly says to the student in question, "'What were you doing in Boston on a school night... ?'

"He got very quiet, and he finally looked at me and said, 'Well I met someone in the bus station bathroom and I went home with him.'"

The tape recording allegedly continues, "High school sophomore, 15 years old.

"I looked at [the student] and said, 'You know, I hope you knew to use a condom.'"

The right charges that Jennings should have reported the youth to the authorities if he knew that the boy was having sexual relations with an older man.

Jennings has denied that he knew for sure that the boy's alleged dealings with the older man were sexual in nature.

The Washington Times, in particular, has made a meal of those allegations, referring multiple times to the student's alleged affair with an older man in a Sept. 29 editorial, comparing Jennings to disgraced Republican congressman Mark Foley, drawing parallels between Jennings and the allegedly page-boy abusing congressman and claiming that if Jennings had been a Republican, the media uproar would have been deafening.

Though Jennings himself has not been accused of abusing younger men, the editorial spoke of Jennings as though he had.

The editorial's text read, in part, "Mr. Jennings brings all the sleaze of Mr. Foley.

"Sex and the underaged? Check. An older man? Check.

"Potential misbehavior by a government official? Check."

Referring again and again to the same alleged incident, the editorial wen ton, "A 'safe schools czar' who failed to report a statutory rape?

"An education leader who encouraged a 15-year-old student to be comfortable with sexual abuse?"

And, although Jennings was not an appointee at the time of the he allegedly learned of sexual relations between the boy and an older man, the editorial continued in the same vein, calling Jennings "A federal official who ignored a law requiring him to report even the possibility of a crime".

The editorial slammed the Obama administration for several political picks, ending its litany with, "And now an appointee who thinks sex between an adult and a 15-year-old is no big deal."

Other news sources attacked Jennings based on his writings, including his autobiographical account of having been so frightened and angered as a gay teenager that he wrote off his religious faith and turned to drugs and alcohol.

Though Jennings' story would be familiar to many who grew up in faced with a hostile school system the likes of which Jennings has dedicated his career to changing, it was Jennings' youthful behavior that reports from the right chose to focus on and not his subsequent efforts to make schools safer for GLBT youth, or his reawakening to Christianity and his service to the evangelical Union Theological Seminary, upon the board of which Jennings sits.

Fox reported on the storm of criticism in a Sept. 23 article, noting that Jennings had been a teacher in Massachusetts when he created GLSEN--the "Gay Straight and Lesbian Education Network"--in 1990, in order to help end anti-gay harassment and homophobia in schools.

GLSEN has worked to educate lawmakers and the public about the problem of anti-gay bullying, performing surveys that document a shockingly high prevalence of anti-gay verbal and physical harassment in schools, some of it perpetrated by teachers and other school staff, with much of the student-on-student harassment left uncorrected by school staff members.

The Fox article noted that GLSEN now has GSAs--Gay-Straight Alliances, which are student-led clubs dedicated to countering anti-gay bullying--in 40 schools throughout the country.

Jennings has also written six books, the article noted. It is from those books that many of the allegations are drawn, but supporters say those allegations are founded on material that has been taken out of context and misrepresented.

A Center for American Progress deputy research director, Amanda Terkel, was quoted in the article as noting of Jennings' high-school drug use that, "We have had elected officials do [drugs] and we still believe it is fine for them to be elected."

Added Terkel of Jennings' attempts to cope with the stigma and social punishment associated with being a gay teen by using drugs and alcohol, "This is a point in his life that he was struggling," going on to say, "I think those experiences now help him reach out to students, relate to what they are going through, and help them through their problems."

But Jennings' critics say that his work to secure safe schools and combat bullying has focused too narrowly on serving the needs of GLBT youth.

A senior fellow with the anti-gay Family Research Council accused Jennings of "defining 'safe schools' narrowly in terms of 'safe for homosexuality,'" the Fox article reported, quoting Peter Sprigg.

Moreover, Sprigg noted that "safe schools" officials are supposed to concentrate on keeping drugs out of school, "and we've not been offered any evidence about what qualifications Jennings has for promoting drug-free schools."

Sprigg questioned Jennings' fitness for the post, based partly on his youthful drug use, saying, "It would be nice to hear from Mr. Jennings ... that he regrets the drug use he engaged in when he was in school.

"But in this autobiography, which Mr. Jennings wrote only recently, he never expresses any regret about his youthful drug use," Sprigg added.

The Fox article reported that the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools was established under former President George W. Bush, during Bush's first term, in 2002.

But that office, charge some, was never seriously put to use under the former president.

The article quoted Terkel as saying, "For a long time I think this position was largely neglected. It was seen as a throwaway position.

"Now the Obama administration has made an attempt to find someone who, in many ways, seems tailor-made for this position.

"[Jennings] has devoted his whole career to promoting safe schools."

Social and religious conservatives seem less concerned about Jennings having resorted to drugs as a gay teen than by what they see as Jennings having worked to "promote homosexuality" in schools.

Although GLSEN works to promote acceptance of diversity in school populations, some conservatives, especially religious ones, view anything other than condemnation of gays as "promoting homosexuality." State legislatures contemplating anti-bullying laws have, in the past, been beset by anti-gay groups determined to see such proposed laws fail, lest gays no longer be socially stigmatized.

Though gay teens are at considerably higher risk for suicide than their heterosexual peers, conservatives justify such stigmatization by saying that sexual orientation is a "choice," and insisting--against medical evidence--that gays can "convert" at will to straights through counseling and prayer.

Jennings' career as an advocate for GLBT youth thus makes him a target for religious and social conservatives who see him as encouraging teens to be gay.

Indeed, comments Jennings made about the entire notion of so-called "promotion of homosexuality" in schools have been re-cast as Jennings having openly described some sort of "agenda."

The Fox article referred to remarks Jennings made in 1997, when he was relating his group's response to Congress looking into claims that GLSEN was "promoting homosexuality" to students.

"And we were busy putting out press releases, and saying, 'We're not promoting homosexuality, that's not what our program's about.'"

Jennings envisioned a time when people might be less judgmental about one another's sexuality, saying, "Being finished might someday mean that most straight people, when they would hear that someone was promoting homosexuality, would say 'Yeah, who cares?' because they wouldn't necessarily equate homosexuality with something bad that you would not want to promote."

The article also recounted an episode from the year 2000 in which an anti-gay activist videotaped the proceedings of "TeachOut," which was supposed to have been a safe and confidential forum for students to ask about, and receive fact-based information about, gay sexuality.

GLSEN, together with the Massachusetts Department of Education, presented the forum at Tufts University. GLSEN was smeared when a state employee discussed fisting during the course of the conversation.

Anti-gay conservatives pounced on the episode, dubbing it "Fistgate" and holding it up as evidence that gays sought to "recruit" from the ranks of the young.

The person responsible for the recording was never charged with violating wiretapping laws, but because portions of the recording were playing on a right-wing radio talk show controversy arose over the violation of the students' privacy.

Jennings distanced himself and his group from the state employee's comments, saying, "From what I've heard, I have concerns as well."

Added Jennings, "GLSEN believes that children do have a right to accurate, safer sex education, but this needs to be delivered in an age-appropriate and sensitive manner."

Jennings publicly regretted the damaging use to which anti-gay activists put cherry-picked snippets of the recording, saying, "What troubles me is the people who have the tape know what our mission is, they know that our work is about preventing harassment, and they know that session was not the totality of what was offered at a conference with over 50 sessions."

Anti-gay religious Web site posted a June 2 article attacking Jennings as a "Foul-Mouthed Homosexual Activist and Anti-Christian Bigot," reporting that Jennings, in a 2000 address, spoke of the anti-gay religious right as "hard-core bigots."

Said Jennings, "We have to quit being afraid of the religious right."

Added Jennings, "I'm trying not to say, 'Fuck 'em!,' which is what I want to say, because I don't care what they think!"

As the audience broke into laughter, Jennings added, "Drop dead!"

The LifeSiteNews article referenced Peter Labarbera of the anti-gay Web site Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, which frequently posts lurid content it suggests is typical of gays and lesbians.

LaBarbera was quoted as declaring, "Anti-religious bigots should not be setting policy for schools--and promoting dangerous sex and gender identities to youth is the antithesis of 'safety.'"

Continued the LaBarbera quote, "Jennings should have been drummed out of public policy years ago for GLSEN's role in the awful Fistgate scandal that corrupted Boston youth.

"But instead the GLSEN founder is now being elevated to one of the most important roles in U.S. education policy."

The anti-gay activist vowed that, "Americans For Truth will educate Americans on Jennings' and GLSEN's dangerous agenda, and we will work with other pro-family and parental rights groups across the country--and Obama voters who oppose pro-homosexual indoctrination in schools--to urge that the Jennings appointment be withdrawn."

A long-repeated claim from the anti-gay right is that gays "prey" on youths, by "turning" them gay or by forcing sex on them; Jennings spoke about the need to re-frame the conversation about advocacy for GLBT youth lest efforts on their behalf be derailed by alarmist claims that such advocacy imperiled young people, rather than seeking to protect GLBT youth.

In an article posted on Sept. 13, anti-gay Web site WorldNetDaily reported on comments that Jennings had made in 1995 about the tactics he had devised to fend off spurious attacks from the right.

Appearing at the Human Rights Campaign Fund Leadership Conference, Jennings talked about how he concluded that buzzwords like "promoting homosexuality" could be used to derail his work for safe schools, so he came up with a few buzz words of his own.

"If the radical right can succeed in portraying us as preying on children, we will lose," Jennings told the audience.

"Their language--'promoting homosexuality' is one example--is laced with subtle and not-so-subtle innuendo that we are 'after their kids.'

"We must learn from the abortion struggle, where the clever claiming of the term 'pro-life' allowed those who opposed abortion on demand to frame the issue to their advantage, to make sure that we do not allow ourselves to be painted into a corner before the debate even begins," Jennings continued.

"In Massachusetts the effective re-framing of this issue was the key to the success of the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth."

Jennings detailed exactly how he proceeded. "We immediately seized upon the opponent's calling card--safety--and explained how homophobia represents a threat to students' safety by creating a climate where violence, name-calling, health problems, and suicide are common.

"Titling our report 'Making Schools Safe for Gay and Lesbian Youth,' we automatically threw our opponents onto the defensive and stole their best line of attack," Jennings told the gathering.

"This framing short-circuited their arguments and left them back-pedaling from day one."

Jennings' effectiveness at the same tactics long used by anti-gay religious and social conservatives may be the reason such groups harbor what seems to be a deep-seated bitterness against him. The Fox article quoted a spokesperson for GLSEN, Daryl Presgraves, who denounced the allegations as "falsehoods... misrepresentations... things taken out of context [and] outright smears--all of which have been fully debunked," and charged that the anti-gay groups that circulated the allegations "will stop at nothing to ensure that no effective action is taken to address bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in America's schools."

Added Presgraves, "They have failed to derail and slander GLSEN's well-respected work in the education world, which includes partnerships with numerous national education organizations, and they now seek to tarnish Kevin Jennings' highly regarded career as an educator."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.