- Longtime gay activist
- Founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network
- Was appointed to serve as Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education by President Barack Obama in 2009
A native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Kevin Jennings was raised by a father who was a Baptist minister, and a mother who was irreligious and anti-Catholic. After graduating from Harvard College in 1985, Jennings took a job as a high-school history teacher. Three years later he became a guidance counselor for America’s first Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at the Concord Academy in Massachusetts.
In 1988 a Concord Academy sophomore confided to Jennings that he and an adult male were having a homosexual relationship that had begun in a bus-stop bathroom. Jennings failed to report the boy’s situation (which technically amounted to statutory rape) to authorities. Instead he actively encouraged the relationship, counseling the youngster to use a condom in his sexual encounters. Two decades later, Jennings would concede that “I should have asked for more information and consulted legal or medical authorities.”
In 1990 Jennings founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a Boston-area volunteer group aiming to fight “homophobia and heterosexism” in K-12 schools throughout the state. Jennings and GLSEN advocated in favor of public-school classroom curricula -- to begin as early as kindergarten -- that would feature a “saturation process” designed to imbue schoolchildren with positive impressions of the homosexual lifestyle.
In 1992 Massachusetts Governor William Weld appointed Jennings to co-chair the Education Committee of the Governor’s Commission on Gay & Lesbian Youth. Jennings was the lead author of the Commission’s report, “Making Schools Safe for Gay & Lesbian Youth.”
Also in 1992, Jennings became a Joseph Kingenstein Fellow at Columbia University, where he received a master’s degree two years later.
In 1995 Jennings left the teaching profession and began to expand GLSEN from a local group to a national network (with more than 3,000 chapters by 2009). GLSEN programs like “No Name-Calling Week” and “Day of Silence” became commonplace in America’s public schools. In his work with GSLEN, Jennings promoted conferences that gave graphic and detailed presentations about the mechanics and variations of homosexual intercourse.
In a 1995 speech, Jennings explained that in order to counter his critics’ claims that he was actively promoting homosexuality, he would emphasize the idea of “safety” instead:
“If the radical right can succeed in portraying us as preying on children, we will lose. Their language – ‘promoting homosexuality’ is one example – is laced with subtle and not-so-subtle innuendo that we are ‘after their kids.’ … In Massachusetts the effective reframing of this issue was the key to the success of the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. 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…. This framing short-circuited [our critics’] arguments and left them back-pedaling from day one.”
In a 1997 speech Jennings expressed his deep admiration for one of America’s first homosexual activists, Communist Party member Harry Hay. Hay founded the gay-rights group the Mattachine Society in 1948 and the Radical Faeries in 1979. In addition, Hay was a longtime advocate for the North American Man-Boy Love Association.
In 1999 Jennings earned an M.B.A. from New York University’s Stern School of Business. That same year, he wrote the foreword for a book titled Queering Elementary Education: Advancing the Dialogue about Sexualities and Schooling, which aims to “explore taken-for-granted assumptions about diversity, identities, childhood, and prejudice.” In this book, Jennings wrote, “I often find myself confronted with people who attack me for ‘bringing this issue into our schools, How laughable this statement is, I think. The reality is that this issue--anti-gay bigotry--is already in our schools. Little kids are learning to hate, and they’re learning it right now in elementary schools across America.”
In 2000, Jennings’ GLSEN co-hosted a “Teach Out” at Tufts University, where organizers instructed public-school teachers on how to incorporate positive messages about homosexuality into their curricula. At the same conference, GLSEN organizers led a youth workshop (for students aged 14 to 21) titled “What They Didn’t Tell You about Queer Sex & Sexuality in Health Class.” One of the topics discussed was “fisting,” the consensual insertion of one person’s clenched hand and arm into another person's anal cavity.
During a March 20, 2000 address in a New York City church, Jennings outlined his political strategy for gay activism:
“Twenty percent of people are hard-core fair-minded [pro-homosexual] people. Twenty percent are hard-core [anti-homosexual] bigots. We need to ignore the hard-core bigots, get more of the hard-core fair-minded people to speak up, and we’ll pull that 60 percent [of people in the middle] over to our side. That’s really what I think our strategy has to be. We have to quit being afraid of the religious right. We also have to quit — I’m trying to find a way to say this. I’m trying not to say, ‘[F—] ’em!’ which is what I want to say, because I don’t care what they think! Drop dead!”
In 2001 Jennings sat on the advisory board for a PBS documentary-style film that criticized the Boy Scouts of America for their policy barring homosexuals from membership.
In his 2002 book Always My Child, Jennings calls for a “diversity policy that mandates including LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] themes in the [school] curriculum.” In Jennings’ view, LGTB curricula should contain no mention of people who have abandoned homosexual lifestyles: “Ex-gay messages have no place in our nation’s public schools. A line has been drawn. There is no ‘other side’ when you’re talking about lesbian, gay and bisexual students.”
In 2006 Jennings published Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son: A Memoir. In that book, he recounts how religion instilled in him (during his youth) a deep sense of guilt about his own homosexuality. He says that eventually, his irrepressible fantasies about “hot guys” led him to develop a “new attitude toward God.” Writes Jennings:
“Before [I thought] I was the one who was failing God; now I decided He was the one who had failed me. I decided I had done nothing wrong: He had [done something wrong], by promising to ‘set you free’ and never delivering on His promise. What had He done for me, other than make me feel shame and guilt? Squat. Screw you, buddy -- I don’t need you around anymore, I decided.”
Jennings further reports that for years afterward he “reacted violently to anyone who professed any kind of religion,” and that he would not open a Bible again for decades.
Jennings has authored six books and was once the recipient of the National Education Association’s Human and Civil Rights Award.
In June 2009 President Barack Obama appointed Jennings as Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education in charge of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. Critics then launched a campaign, which 52 members of Congress subsequently joined, to revoke Jennings’ appointment, expressing concern that he would use his position as “Education Czar” (or "Safe Schools Czar") to promote homosexuality in grade schools. Jennings had once expressed his hope that "someday ... most straight people, when they would hear that someone was promoting homosexuality, would say ‘Yeah, who cares?’"
In June 2011, Jennings stepped down from his Obama administration post.