In the mid-nineties, when Kevin Jennings was the executive director of a fledging non-profit supporting LGBT youth and teachers called GLSEN (for the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educators Network), he gave a lecture to my all-girls high school in Baltimore. I remember almost nothing about the content of his presentation; what I remember is that the school brought an openly gay man to address us directly on the matter of being gay. (Still, prior to the speech, our guidance counselor warned us that while homosexuality was okay, "experts advise" against coming out in high school.) Jennings, meanwhile, was appealing, accessible, and seemed to be working a circuit – going to any school that would let him be a warm, unashamed gay person in front of young people.
More than ten years later, my sister, now a junior at the same school, tells me that there’s a Gay-Straight Alliance, several out teachers, and a popular annual Day of Silence. Kevin Jennings, meanwhile, is no longer heading a small advocacy group – he’s part of the Obama administration.
Jennings has been appointed head of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, a post focused primarily on violence and drug prevention. He should know a thing or two about the kind of violence that can face LGBT youth: GLSEN has documented the prevalence of anti-LGBT violence and harassment in schools, finding in a 2007 survey that 39 percent of students experienced physical assault because of their sexual orientation; 81 percent of students were harassed on a regular basis. In last weekend’s New York Times magazine cover story on gay and questioning middle school students, author Benoit Denizet-Lewis notes that a University of Nebraska-Harvard Medical School study found anti-gay harassment to be the most "psychologically harmful type of bullying." In Denizet-Lewis’s article, teachers and students interviewed describe anti-gay slurs as ubiquitous. One teacher told him, "If I have to stop what I’m doing every time a student says ["That’s so gay"], I won’t have any time to teach!"
Predictably, conservative groups are going after Jennings. They kicked up a storm shortly after his confirmation, and now they’re issuing e-blasts again. And they couldn’t be making their intentions more blatant: they want Kevin Jennings to be the next Van Jones. In a recent e-newsletter, FRC referenced a Washington Times headline "Looking for the next Van Jones" (the headline is in fact "Conservatives hunt for the next Van Jones"). Jennings isn’t mentioned in the article, so FRC responds: