Originally published: Oct. 14, 2009, 4:57 p.m.
Updated: Oct. 15, 2009, 1:25 p.m.
Right-wing groups have taken aim at an openly gay Obama Administration official after conservative media and several activists and pundits chastised the official over sex advice he gave a gay student in 1988. The attacks culminated Thursday in a call from 53 U.S. House members for President Barack Obama to remove Kevin Jennings, an assistant deputy secretary in the Department of Education and director of the department’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. Five House members representing North and South Carolina were among the co-signers.
Jennings, a Winston-Salem, N.C. native, has said he should have handled the situation with the student differently but was defended by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
“He is uniquely qualified for his job, and I am honored to have him on our team,” Duncan said, according to an AP report.
While a teacher at a Concord, Mass., high school in 1988, Jennings, then 24, was approached by a 16-year-old student who described meeting an older man in Boston and going home with him.
In a book and at a conference years later, Jennings said he told the boy, “My best friend had just died of AIDS the week before. You know, I hope you knew to use a condom.”
Conservative professor and “ex-gay” proponent Warren Throckmorton had discovered a tape of Jennings’ remarks at the conference and posted it to his website.
In a statement, Jennings said he regrets his remarks. “21 years later, I can see how I should have handled the situation differently. I should have asked for more information and consulted medical or legal authorities,” he said. “Teachers back then had little training and 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.”
Progressive media watchdog group Media Matters for America has debunked several Fox News Channel reports which claimed the student was 15 at the time of the encounter. Media Matters has since contacted the student and has proven he was 16 — Massachusett’s legal age of consent — when he approached Jennings regarding his relationship with the older man.
Jessica Levin, Media Matters’ press secretary, told Q-Notes the attacks on Jennings are no doubt motivated by his sexual orientation.
“They’ve tried to paint him as a radical gay activist and tried to fabricate links to NAMBLA,” she said. “The fact that he is openly gay and used to work for a gay organization is a large part of [the attacks].”
Levin said accusations that Jennings “covered up” a statutory rape need to be taken seriously, especially when they aren’t true. She said other Obama Administration officials have also come under attack.
“This is something we’ve seen a lot of in the past few months, starting with the Van Jones controversy and going on from there,” she said. “It has been a constant witch hunt. We have a whole list of different so-called ‘czars’ they’ve gone after. The Kevin Jennings one probably hit a new low.”
Media Matters said the attacks “follow a well established pattern” and that “members of the conservative media, Glenn Beck key among them, are conducting a relentless and frequently defamatory witch hunt for ‘czars’ in the Obama administration.”
On Oct. 15, U.S. Rep. Steve King (IA-05) released a letter with 52 other House co-signers calling on Obama to remove Jennings from his position. Republican North Carolina Reps. Virginia Foxx (NC-05), Patrick McHenry (NC-10), Sue Myrick (NC-09) and Walter Jones (NC-03) were among the co-signers, along with South Carolina’s Rep. Henry Brown (SC-01). Foxx represents portions of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.
“Mr. Jennings lacks the appropriate qualifications and ethical standards to serve in this capacity,” the letter states.
The letter outlines several Jennings’ statements, writings and achievements as problems: “…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. As evidence of this, Mr. Jennings wrote the foreword for a book titled Queering Elementary Education: Advancing the Dialogue About Sexualities and Schooling. Throughout his career, Mr. Jennings has made it his mission to establish special protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students to the exclusion of all other students. The totality of Mr. Jennings’ career has been to advocate for public affirmation of homosexuality. There is more to safe and drug free schools than can be accomplished from the narrow view of Mr. Jennings who has, for more than 20 years, almost exclusively focused on promoting the homosexual agenda.”
The letter continues, “As the ‘safe schools’ czar, Mr. Jennings is also charged with ensuring our schools and students are drug free. It is clear that Mr. Jennings is unfit to serve in this capacity, as well. His own history of unrepentant drug and alcohol abuse indicates that he is of the opinion that getting drunk and high as a young person is acceptable. In his memoir, Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son, Mr. Jennings describes his use of illegal drugs, without expressing regret or acknowledging the devastating effects illegal drug use can have on a person’s life.”
The letter also repeats the false sex advice claim furthered by conservative activists and pundits: “Equally troubling is Mr. Jennings’ self-described history of ignoring the sexual abuse of a child. In his book, One Teacher in Ten, Mr. Jennings recounts a 15-year old student confiding in him that he had a sexual relationship with a much older man. Mr. Jennings’ only response was to ask if the underage boy used a condom. As a mandatory reporter, Mr. Jennings was required by law to report child abuse, including sex crimes. Mr. Jennings cannot serve as the ‘safe schools’ czar when his record demonstrates a willingness to overlook the sexual abuse of a child.”
As detailed by several reports, the student was 16 — Massachusetts age of consent — at the time of his conversation with Jennings in 1988.
Jennings is the founder of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and served as its first executive director before stepping down to take his position with the Department of Education. He has been honored by several national education groups, including the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of Independent Schools and the National Education Association.
Jennings grew up in Lewisville, N.C., outside of Winston-Salem. His memoir, “Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son,” recounts his life growing up gay in North Carolina, his relationship with his parents and his career as an educator and advocate.
This latest round of attacks is not Jennings’ first rendezvous with right-wing conservatives in his position with the Department of Education. Appointed to the office in May, he came under attack by the conservative Family Research Council days before he was set to begin work in June. The Council’s “Stop Jennings” campaign included full page advertisements in The Washington Examiner.