By Elisabeth Garber-Paul
In the latest attack on progressive White House staffers, fifty-three Republican members of congress signed a letter to President Obama yesterday urging him to ask Kevin Jennings, the “safe-schools czar,” for his immediate resignation. The letter, penned by Steve King (R-IA), sites Jennings’s earnest dialogue and roots as a gay educator as the reasons he’s unfit for office.
Their first qualm, which surfaced in September–not long after the demonization and subsequent resignation of Van Jones–had to do with a description in his memoirs and speeches of some problematic advice he had given a student over two decades ago: a young man confessed that he’d had a sexual encounter with an older man, and Jennings first question was if he’d used a condom. Even though this was during the peak of the AIDS epidemic–which makes the condom question seem relevant enough, to me–Jennings recently apologized for the incident.
"Twenty-one years later, I can see how I should have handled the situation differently," Jennings said in a statement. “I should have asked for more information and consulted medical or legal authorities.”
But, according to the letter sent yesterday, this lapse of judgment early on in his career isn’t the only objection coming from the Right.
“As the founder of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Mr. Jennings 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.”
Promoting a “homosexual agenda?” Hardly. If anything, GLSEN has been instrumental in promoting an agenda of respect and tolerance in schools nationwide. Since it’s inception in 1990 it has helped students establish gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in their high schools–even holding a 1997 conference in Utah to object to the state’s proposed legislation against such groups–and sponsoring the annual National Day of Silence, when students abstain from speaking in honor of the gay, lesbian, and transgendered people whose voices have been silenced in the past.
However, looking at Rep. King’s voting record, it’s not surprising that he’s terrified of an openly gay man being in charge of student safety–he could be the poster boy for social conservatism. In 2007, he voted against prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation and, a year earlier, for the constitutionally defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.