Jennings, who was a prominent homosexual activist before being named director of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education, also has called for kindergarteners to be taught to respect all sexual orientations, while insisting that “ex-gay messages” and “Christian values” are ‘misused to isolate or denigrate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people" and have no place in the nation’s public schools.
Recent controversy surrounding Jennings's role in the Department of Education has revolved around a 1988 conversation in which Jennings told a high school sophomore in a relationship with an older man that he hoped he used a condom--rather than reporting the possible case to statutory rape to authorities. Jennings recently said in a written statement that he was 24 at the time and wished he had handled the situation differently.
Last Thursday, 53 House Republicans sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking that he remove Jennings from office.
In the years before he became a political appointee in the Obama Education Department, Jennings served as founder and executive director of the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), an organization that seeks to promote the mainstreaming of homosexuality in the nation’s schools and prevent bullying of gay students. In this capacity, he made frequent media appearances, statements and speeches, which were sometimes controversial.
“What GLSEN does is teach young children they should not call each other names; that they should not beat each other up,” Jennings was quoted as saying in the Washington Times in November 2000. “Being gay doesn't kill people, but homophobia does kill people.”
CNSNews.com could not reach Jennings for comment for this story after repeated phone calls last week to the Department of Education press office.
Stressing safety for homosexuals in American schools has been a successful strategy, Jennings said in one speech to a GLSEN group.
“We immediately seized upon the opponents’ 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,” World and I magazine reported that Jennings said in a 1994 speech.
“We knew that, confronted with real-life stories of youth who had suffered from homophobia, our opponents would automatically be on the defensive: they would have to attack people who had already been victimized once, which puts them in a bully position from which it would be hard to emerge looking good,” Jennings said. “In Massachusetts, no one could speak up against our frame [of the debate] and say, ‘Why, yes, I do think students should kill themselves.’ This allowed us to set the terms of the debate.”
The World and I article also reported that Jennings said in 1997: “I can envision a day when straight people say, ‘So what if you're promoting homosexuality?’”
In a 2000 speech at a GLSEN event Iowa, Jennings argued that students as young as kindergarten should be taught to respect people “regardless of sexual orientation.”
The Washington Times has posted an audio of this speech on its Web site.
“Our curriculum at kindergarten, and first grade, and second grade--every grade until students have graduated should be ‘you must respect every human being regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of gender identity, regardless of race or religion or any arbitrary distinctions we make about people,” Jennings said in the 2000 speech. “If we cannot teach this very basic lesson in our schools we will be very surprised at how hard it is for these students to learn French or English or math.”
In a February 2000 speech, Jennings predicted at a GLSEN conference that the cause of making homosexuality acceptable would succeed in elementary school. “Homosexuality will become more acceptable to students, especially elementary ones,” he said, according to an article in The Post-Standard of Syracuse, N.Y. “We are at a new moment in our history.”
Jennings, however, has not called for respecting former homosexuals.
In 2004, two factions within the National Education Association – the Republican Educators Caucus and the Ex-Gay Educators Caucus – objected to the NEA awarding Jennings the Virginia Uribe Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights, the Washington Times reported that year.
Much of that opposition was in response to Jennings writing in a GLSEN publication: “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.”
Jennings, the son of a Baptist minister, has expressed his frustrations with Christians critical of homosexuality, and specifically with Southern Baptists.
In 2003, U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige responded to a question from the Baptist Press, which asked him, “Given the choice between private and Christian, uh, or private and public universities, who do you think has the best deal?”
Paige answered, “That's a judgment, too, that would vary because each of them have real strong points and some of them have vulnerabilities, but you know, all things being equal, I'd prefer to have a child in a school where there's a strong appreciation for values, the kind of values that I think are associated with Christian communities.”
On April 9, 2003, GLSEN issued a press release demanding clarification from Paige.
“The language of religious values -- particularly ‘Christian values’ -- has often been misused to isolate or denigrate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” Jennings said in a written statement. “For Secretary Paige to suggest that the tenets of any particular religion have a place in public education is an exceedingly dangerous breach of the constitutional separation of church and state, and of tremendous concern for safe schools advocates who seek to protect LGBT students and staff from harassment, violence and discrimination in schools.”
On Nov. 19, 2000, Jennings wrote an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer that was critical of the North Carolina Southern Baptist Convention’s position on homosexuality.
“As a native Tar Heel and a former high school history teacher, I watched in amazement last week as the North Carolina Southern Baptist Convention passed a policy excluding gay people (and anyone who welcomes them) from the denomination. All I could think was of the old aphorism ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,’” Jennings wrote.
He compared the denomination’s stance on homosexuality with racism during the days of slavery and segregation.
“The same pious members who nodded in agreement as our preacher talked about ‘loving your neighbor’ seemed to believe that this meant loving your white neighbors. Our fellow churchgoers expressed a visceral hatred of blacks (except they didn't say ‘blacks’), resisted the integration of schools in Winston-Salem, and generally were pretty ‘unChristian’ on the whole subject of race,” the Jennings op-ed continued. “The Southern Baptists of the 1970s were, in fact, just following the traditions and history of our denomination, which had been founded because Southern Baptists wanted to defend the institution of slavery and thus formed their own convention in the 1840s. In 1996, about 150 years after it mattered, the Southern Baptist Convention formally apologized for its role in upholding slavery and racism. Better late than never, I guess.”
GLSEN has back the “Day of Silence,” a national protest by gay high school students. But Jennings has dismissed the counter protest—the “Day of Truth”--sponsored by Christian student groups as “an effort by adults to manipulate some kids.”
“The Day of Silence was an event conceived of by students themselves in response to a very real problem of bullying and harassment they saw on their campuses,” Jennings told the Associated Press on April 13, 2005. “The Day of Truth is a publicity stunt cooked up by a conservative organization with a political agenda; it's an effort by adults to manipulate some kids.”
People of faith are not the only demographic he finds “homophobic.” An Oct. 23, 2003 Jennings op-ed in USA Today carried the headline: “Homophobic fans’ ugly words spoil great games.”
“I am at Yankee Stadium, and it’s the top of the third inning in game one of the American League Championship Series. The guy behind me in Tier 3 (yes, you!) is screaming ‘FAGGOT’ at one of the Red Sox players for the 13th time this game. ‘Gee, I didn't know the Red Sox had so many gay players,’ my domestic partner mutters under his breath,” Jennings wrote.
Jennings continues, “Ah, sports and homophobia. They just seem to go so naturally together, like peanut butter and jelly. I'd forgotten why I hadn't ventured out to the stadium in a decade: As a gay man, I find it isn't a lot of fun to go to pro sporting events.”
He then called for more policing of what he considered bigoted fans.
“What to do? A good start would be for the police crawling all over Yankee Stadium to discourage this homophobic language. (Would they tolerate fans yelling the ‘N’ word?) Cutting off beer sales wouldn't hurt, either,” he wrote.
GLSEN issued a press release on Sept. 12, 2007 extolling the virtues of gay straight alliances (GSA) in public high schools. “A straight high school student and GLSEN founder Kevin Jennings founded the first GSA in 1988 at Concord Academy in Massachusetts, where Jennings was a history teacher. The number of GSAs registered with GLSEN grew to 1,000 by the end of 2001 and could reach 4,000 this school year,” the release said.
“LGBT students in schools with GSAs are less likely to miss school because they feel unsafe compared to other students,” said a GLSEN release. “Students in schools with a GSA are more likely to report that school faculty, staff and administration are supportive of lesbian, gay and bisexual students.”
The Boy Scouts of America, however, is a club that does not belong in public schools, Jennings said.
“If you want to have the right to do what you want, because you are private, you cannot expect public money and public employees spending their time to administering your program,” the Washington Times reported Jennings saying in his 2000 speech in Iowa. “The fact is that our public schools cannot be in the business of running discriminatory programs. It is wrong. It undermines the very reason why we have schools, and it must not happen. ...so let the Boy Scouts hoist themselves upon their own petard. They say, ‘we're a private group, we should be allowed to do whatever we want.’ Fine. Do it on your own time and your own money. Get out of the schools.”
Last year, Jennings voiced support for a special high school for homosexuals in Chicago.
“The fact is these kids are not making it through school, and we have to make sure they do while also making sure that every school is safe for every kid,” Jennings said in U.S. News and World Report.
Commenting about the matter on CNN, he said, “We can continue to do nothing, and we know the results, or we can save young people's lives and offer them an education and a future. The choice they are making is not ‘should we have this kind of school?’ The question is: ‘Are we going to do anything we can to get these kids an education?’ And there’s only one right answer - yes.”
In the April 1, 2005 issue of NEA Today, Jennings wrote, “At the same time, the average LGBT high school student comes out between 15 and 17. So they're coming out in school systems that have no more policies than they did when I was in high school, with teachers who have no more training. And then we're surprised when four out of five of these kids report that they routinely experience physical or verbal or sexual harassment. What did we think was going to happen?”
Jennings told the Columbia University chapter of Everyone Allied Against Homophobia (EAAH) that lack of acceptance of homosexuals is harmful to heterosexual men.
“I think one of the reasons straight men are the highest risk group for heart attacks and other stress-related illnesses is that they're not allowed to show affection, to hug their friends,” Jennings said, according to a November 1999 article in the Columbia Spectator.
In that same speech, according to the Columbia Spectator, Jennings accused opponents of the gay right agenda of being against American values.
“Every time the right takes a stand against immigrants, against affirmative action, against gay rights, they are flying in the face of what it means to be an American,” Jennings said, according to the student paper.