In May 2009 President Barack Obama appointed Kevin Jennings to the post of Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education and Director of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education (the so-called "safe schools czar.")
The openly gay Jennings (b. 1963) is uniquely qualified for this job. After years of distinguished service as a teacher and youth counselor, Jennings founded (1990) the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). In 1992 Massachusetts Governor William Weld (a Republican) appointed Jennings to co-chair the Education Committee of the Governor's Commission of Gay and Lesbian Youth.
Jennings has written several books addressing the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and teachers, including the Lambda Award-winning anthology Telling Tales Out of School (1998).
"It has been said that one person can start a revolution and, in the case of Kevin Jennings, ... that has never been more profoundly true," biographer Victoria Shannon wrote in glbtq.com. "For nearly twenty years, Jennings has campaigned all over the country to educate glbtq and straight teachers, parents, students, and community members about ending bias in the nation's K-12 schools."
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees that Jennings is the right man for the job. He has become the target of a conservative culture war against the Obama Administration in general and his so-called "czars" in particular. Led by conservative bloggers, syndicated columnists and radio and TV talk show hosts, the new witch hunters deem Obama's appointees (and Obama himself) to be unqualified for their jobs due to their past life experiences or political views. They agree with syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, who wrote that "the [Obama] administration is full of people who hate America - or at least the America I grew up knowing and loving. These radicals want to transform this country into a socialist and amoral society." Their persistence led to the resignations of Van Jones, Obama's adviser to the Council on Environmental Quality, and Yosi Sergant, communications director of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Kevin Jennings is the conservatives' latest target. Maxim Lott of FoxNews.com summarized the right wing attack against Jennings when he described the "safe schools czar" as "a former schoolteacher who has advocated promoting homosexuality in schools, written about his past drug abuse, expressed his contempt for religion and detailed an incident in which he did not report an underage student who told him he was having sex with older men." Here Lott and other conservative critics refer to a 1988 incident that Jennings wrote about in his book One Teacher In Ten (1994) about a gay student, "Brewster," who told Jennings about his sexual relationship with an older man. The fact that Jennings did not report "Brewster" to the authorities has been interpreted by Jennings' critics as condoning sex with minors, even though "Brewster" was already 16 (the age of consent in Massachusetts) at the time of the incident. Since then "Brewster" has come forward to defend Jennings, and Jennings himself has issued a statement [Sept. 30] admitting that he "should have handled the situation differently."
Jennings's critics are not satisfied.
Peter LaBarbera, the self-appointed head of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality (americansfor truth.com), called Jennings "an affront to Christian, parents' rights and decent, moral citizens everywhere who opposed the indoctrination of students in a pro-homosexuality, pro-gender confusion agenda. " On October 15, 53 members of Congress, led by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) wrote a letter demanding that the President remove Jennings, who in their words "has played an integral role in promoting homosexuality and pushing a pro-homosexual agenda in America's schools - an agenda that runs counter to the values that many parents desire to instill In their children." Critics also attacked Jennings for associating with people or groups that they disapprove of. They include Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay, who once supported the rights of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA); "gay pioneers" Franklin Kameny, Jack Nichols, Nancy Tucker and Randy Wicker, who the right-wing blog worldnetdaily.com called "practitioners of pornography"; and the AIDS activist group ACT UP, blasted by Bill Donohue of the Catholic League as a "homosexual urban terrorist group" that targeted, among others, the Catholic Archbishop of New York.
Of course, the main reason the religious and political right wants Jennings's head on a platter is the fact that Jennings is an out and proud gay man who serves in an important government position. To them, any GLBT person who is not in the closet is "promoting a homosexual agenda." And Jennings is not the only one. Conservatives have also set their sights on the "lesbian activist lawyer" Chai Feldblum, whom Obama has appointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Among the many reasons the right hates Feldblum is that once upon a time she said that "gay sex is morally good."
To his credit, Education Secretary Arne Duncan supports his assistant, saying in a statement (Sept. 30) that "Kevin Jennings has dedicated his professional career to promoting school safety. He is uniquely qualified for his job and I'm honored to have him on our team." President Obama, in a speech delivered before the Human Rights Campaign on October 10, seemed to agree, noting "that if any of my nominees are attacked not for what they believe but for who they are, I will not waver in my support, because I will not waver in my commitment to ending discrimination in all its forms."
Liberal groups, both GLBT and straight, have rallied behind Jennings. According to Michael B. Keegan, President of People For the American Way, "Kevin Jennings has dedicated his entire career to ensuring that all students are safe in school. Kids can't learn when they 're not safe, and Kevin's work has won unanimous praise from across the education community. He's exactly the kind of person who should be in charge of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools." Jennings is also backed by the Center for American Progress, the National Association of School Psychologists, the Learning First Alliance, the National Education Association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the Council for Exceptional Children and the Social Workers Association of America. Visit glsen.org, sign GLSEN's Statement of Support, and help stop the right wing witch hunt against Kevin Jennings.
Jesse Monteagudo is a gay writer and activist who lives in South Florida. Write him at email@example.com.