Why The Right Is Really Going After Kevin Jennings

October 01, 2009 11:51 am ET — Matt Finkelstein

"I would much prefer to export homosexuals from the United States than to import them into the United States because we believe homosexuality is destructive to society."
-- Peter Sprigg, author of Family Research Council's anti-Jennings talking points

For months, the religious right has been waging a homophobic campaign against Kevin Jennings, who heads the Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.  Led by the Family Research Council, anti-gay groups have accused Jennings of "promoting a pro-homosexual agenda" and "pushing homosexuality in schools."  And, despite the emptiness of their attacks, they have been fighting hard to bring Jennings down. 

Now, the conservative media is joining the cause.  Picking up on an editorial in the Washington Times, the Fox Nation website claimed Jennings was guilty of "covering up statutory rape." On his Fox News show last night, Sean Hannity declared, "I want him fired!"

A well-respected educator, Jennings is by far the most qualified OSDFS head in years.  The accusations against him are, at best, extraordinarily misleading efforts to bring down another member of the Obama administration. 

As a young high school teacher in the eighties, Jennings provided counsel to a homosexual student who confided in Jennings that he was having a relationship with an older man.  Rather than reporting the relationship, and thus outing the student, Jennings offered advice.  He also said he hoped the student "knew to use a condom" if he had sex, which was obviously important at a time when AIDS was rampant.  Nevertheless, Jennings has said that he should have handled the situation differently, while noting that teachers back then weren't exactly prepared for this sort of thing:

"Twenty one years later I can see how I should have handled this situation differently.  I should have asked for more information and consulted legal or medical authorities. Teachers back then had little training or guidance about this kind of thing. All teachers should have a basic level of preparedness. I would like to see the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools play a bigger role in helping to prepare teachers."

Although some sources have reported that the student was fifteen years old, a 2004 letter from Jennings' lawyer stated that the student was actually sixteen.**  If that's the case, it would render the cries of "statutory rape" irrelevant (the age of consent in Massachusetts, where they lived, was sixteen).  Regardless, Jennings was clearly trying to protect the student, and it's unclear how his judgment twenty years ago would prevent him from serving today in a position for which he has a surplus of relevant experience. 

That experience includes founding the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which "strives to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression" and "seeks to develop school climates where difference is valued for the positive contribution it makes in creating a more vibrant and diverse community."

Those, of course, are unacceptable goals for the right wing -- which brings us back to why conservatives began looking for dirt on Jennings in the first place: he's gay. 

In July, the anti-gay Family Research Council (FRC) launched its "Stop Kevin Jennings" campaign. If you have any doubts about their motivation, look no further than this statement from FRC Vice President for Public Policy (and author of FRC's anti-Jennings talking points) Peter Sprigg: "I would much prefer to export homosexuals from the United States than to import them into the United States because we believe homosexuality is destructive to society."

There's no getting around it -- the far-right doesn't like Kevin Jennings because he's gay, and they won't stop until they have ruined the reputation of a good man with a long record of service.  "Destructive to society," indeed.


**UPDATE: Media Matters has confirmed that the student in question was 16 years old -- the legal age of consent in Massachusetts.  Additionally, in a statement to Media Matters, the student said he hadn't engaged in any sexual contact with anybody at the time.  As such, it's clear that the allegations against Jennings are nothing more than wildly false speculation from people hoping to embarrass a civil servant and the administration.  According to the student's statement:

Since I was of legal consent at the time, the fifteen-minute conversation I had with Mr. Jennings twenty-one years ago is of nobody's concern but his and mine. However, since the Republican noise machine is so concerned about my "well-being" and that of America's students, they'll be relieved to know that I was not "inducted" into homosexuality, assaulted, raped, or sold into sexual slavery.

In 1988, I had taken a bus home for the weekend, and on the return trip met someone who was also gay. The next day, I had a conversation with Mr. Jennings about it. I had no sexual contact with anybody at the time, though I was entirely legally free to do so. I was a sixteen year-old going through something most of us have experienced: adolescence. I find it regrettable that the people who have the compassion and integrity to protect our nation's students are themselves in need of protection from homophobic smear attacks. Were it not for Mr. Jennings' courage and concern for my well-being at that time in my life, I doubt I'd be the proud gay man that I am today.

- Brewster