Safe Schools Czar Compares Anti-Gay Discrimination to Slavery and Racial Segregation

By Penny Starr | April 29, 2011 | 8:00 AM EDT

Kevin Jennings, assistant deputy secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, spoke to Maryland high school students on Apr. 28 about discrimination toward homosexuals. ( Starr)

( – Kevin Jennings, assistant deputy secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, spoke to Maryland high school students on Thursday about discrimination against homosexuals, drawing parallels to slavery in America and racial segregation.

Jennings told the students in the auditorium and those watching on TV monitors in classrooms at the Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Md., that he was going to offer them a “history lesson.”

Jennings -- who before being appointed to the post by President Barack Obama was a well-known known gay rights activist, including founding the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) -- began the “history lesson” by explaining the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ruled segregating blacks and whites in public schools was unconstitutional.

“I remember the first day of second grade [in 1971] so clearly because when I got on the bus the bus driver told us to lay on the floor, and I asked him why and he said, ‘Well the KKK is shooting out the windows of buses with sawed-off shotguns. If you lay on the floor you are less likely to be injured by spraying glass,’” said Jennings, who grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Jennings included many details about his personal life in his lecture and Power Point presentation, including his older brother’s interracial marriage and how his nephew followed in his father’s footsteps.

“When my nephew got married it was no big deal,” Jennings said. “No one seemed to much notice that he was a different race than his wife or that a gay uncle was officiating at the wedding; whether his best man was Latino.”

“None of these things seemed to matter so much anymore,” Jennings said.

He then displayed a chart of U.S. presidents to show the students which men were in office when slavery was legal, which ones were president when segregation was legal, and that homosexuals have never had equality under any president, including Barack Obama.

"This is a poster I used to have in my classroom when I was a teacher," said Jennings. "Let's just review who these dudes are, all right? These are the presidents that owned slaves. All the presidents outlined in red owned slaves, including two people who were president after after the Civil War, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant. These are all the presidents (who were presidents) when slavery was legal. These are the people who were presidents when segregation was still legal. These are the presidents who are white."

Jennings then said that for most of U.S. history it would have been unthinkable and dangerous to consider a black man to run for president or for a white woman to marry a black man. Social and legal changes in favor of such actions have only happened "very, very, very recently," he said.

"The same thing has happened around gay and lesbian people in American history history," said Jennings, who then noted the pro-homosexual achievements of the last 35 years but also noted that legal and employment restrictions against homosexuals still exist in more than 30 states. "It is still legal in over 30 states to fire people from their jobs because they're gay and they have no legal protections against this," said Jennings.

"So, even under President Obama we have not reached a period where it is completely safe for a gay person to tell the truth about who they are and not fear that they might lose their job,” Jennings said.

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He detailed the gains made by homosexuals “in American history,” including President Bill Clinton undoing the last piece of an executive order that banned the federal government from hiring homosexuals that was put in place by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Clinton specifically removed a ban on government security clearance for homosexuals.

“Why did this matter to me?” Jennings said. “Well, I actually have the top level of security the government offers.”

Jennings, whose lecture was announced as being about bullying, discussed two cases of discrimination apparently involving homosexual students. He did not discuss bullying outside the context of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. One case involved Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old in Massachusetts who hanged himself in 2009 reportedly because of anti-homosexual bullying at his public school. Jennings also read from a letter from a mother of a student who also had killed himself reportedly because of anti-homosexual bullying.

“The message for you today is that you need to be an ally of people who have less than you," said Jennings. "The only way this changes is if people stand up for those who are not as fortunate as themselves."

Jennings went on to discuss how young people should not discriminate against homosexuals.

“I’m going to be really honest with you,” Jennings said. “President Obama, [Education] Secretary Duncan and myself, we can take all the stands we want to take, but in the end the only stand that matters is the stand that you take. Because the only people who have the power to stop this kind of thing is you."

He told the young people that they could make that stand as students at the Bethesda Chevy Chase High School.

"You’re going to be walking down the hall here and you’re going to hear somebody say, ‘Oh that’s so gay’ to describe something they don’t like,” Jennings said. “You’re going to hear them call somebody or something they don’t like a faggot. ... Trust me, your moment is going to come, very quickly here at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, and you will have the power and you will have the responsibility, and you will have to make a decision -- Will you be silent or will you stand up?"

Near the end of his remarks, Jennings referred to Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel who was asked what he learned from the Holocaust and he said, "I learned that silence helps the tormentor, never the tormented."

"So you're going to have your own chance to make history," Jennings told the students. "And you're going to be remembered based on the decisions you make. Do you want to be remembered as the generation that allowed this to continue or do you want to be remembered as the generation that said this has got to stop? that's your moment in history. "

Jennings also said he was “really proud” of working for a president who held a national summit on bullying and who has “appointed more openly LGBT people to public office than any president before in American history.”

Announcements about Jennings’ speech were made at the school, but parents were not specifically notified and no permission slip or “opt out” alternative to the assembly was provided for students, according to school staff.