Recognizing gay students remains an emotional, politically charged issue. But Kevin Jennings isn't out to provoke shouting matches. Instead, he's quietly turning students into activists capable of changing schools on their own.
When you RSVP to a $1,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner at the opulent Mandarin Oriental hotel a few blocks from Central Park in New York City, you don’t expect the featured speaker to quote Bible verses, especially if the organization you’re supporting is trying to make U.S. public schools safer for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. It’s even more unexpected if the speaker is a gay man with degrees from Harvard and Columbia universities who used to teach history at a private school in Massachusetts.
But Kevin Jennings, the 42-year-old executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, the Manhattan-based organization being feted this May evening, hasn’t forgotten his rural and religious North Carolina roots. In fact, his vivid memories of growing up there, including being called “faggot” throughout high school, drove the longtime gay-rights activist to start GLSEN. So it’s not much of a stretch for Jennings, who is still religious, to offer the crowd some Biblical wisdom to digest along with their filet mignon and passion fruit crème brûlées.
But first, to business. “Everybody in this room has opened their wallets and their hearts to this cause,” he says as he steps up to the microphone ceded to him by actress Delta Burke. “As we celebrate our 10th anniversary tonight, I want you to know how incredibly grateful I am.” Scanning the sea of faces—many belonging to impeccably dressed bankers and sharp media types sitting at tables sponsored by corporate supporters including Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and MTV Networks—he’s looking at more than $700,000 raised in one evening.
Jennings then rattles off a key statistic taken from his group’s own research: Four out of five lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, or LGBT, students say they’ve been physically, verbally, or sexually harassed in school because of their sexual orientation. “I’ve been thinking about something we’ve all heard about called ‘moral values,’ ” Jennings muses, co-opting a phrase often used by critics of his organization. “It is morally wrong that we start the school day by making [these students] pledge allegiance to the idea of liberty and justice for all, and then teach them the rest of the school day that LGBT Americans are second-class citizens.
“I know [it’s] morally wrong because I learned it in Sunday school in my Baptist church in Lewisville, North Carolina. We had to memorize 25 Bible verses a night, and I know verses like those in 1 John: ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God.’ ‘If a man says “I love God” and hates his brother, he is a liar.’ ”
Jennings draws breath and speaks his next sentence slowly: “I know what happens in our schools is morally wrong because the Bible tells me so.
“Now let’s talk about what’s right,” he continues. “It is morally right that we teach every child in our schools ... to respect all of their peers, regardless of their race, regardless of their religion, regardless of their sex, and, yes, indeed, regardless of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. These are moral values,” he says, his voice rising, “these are American values, and Mr. Falwell and Mr. Dobson and Mr. Robertson, if you want a moral values debate, you can tell me the time and the place.”
As a rhetorical flourish, Jennings’ challenge to these evangelical Christians packs a punch, and, predictably, his supporters erupt into applause. But Jennings, who struggled to come to terms with his sexuality as a student in the 1970s, knows that the battle is far from over. Powerful voices on the right and the quieter ones of Middle America adamantly oppose acknowledging, much less accepting, alternative lifestyles in schools. Then again, GLSEN hasn’t grown from a one-man to a 30-person organization with a $5 million annual budget by battling his opponents on sexual orientation issues.
Instead, he’s done something the civil rights movement taught him is much more effective: He’s turned students into activists.
Along with advocating for safer schools, GLSEN supports students starting gay-straight alliances, school-based clubs that foster discussion of LGBT issues. There are nearly 3,000 GSAs nationwide, up from just two 15 years ago. The group also organizes a few trademark events, including No Name-Calling Week, featuring anti-bullying activities for students in grades 5 through 8, and the Day of Silence, during which students protest harassment by refusing to speak in school.
The seeming innocuousness of these events is what concerns GLSEN’s opponents most. “Under the rubric of ‘diversity,’ ‘tolerance,’ ‘safe schools,’ and AIDS education, homosexual activists are selling a pansexual agenda right under parents’ noses,” says Robert Knight, director of the conservative Culture and Family Institute. Groups like GLSEN “gain access to public schools by initiating something with obvious appeal, such as the anti-bullying program No Name-Calling Week,” Knight continues. “Such projects are a Trojan horse for promoting homosexuality as normal and inevitable for some kids.”
These beliefs, however, are becoming ingrained in the world beyond school. In the book The New Gay Teenager, Cornell University professor Ritch Savin-Williams argues that everything from corporate antidiscrimination policies to the TV show Will & Grace has had “an incalculable impact on the ability of adolescents to understand their own emerging sexual attractions.” A poll conducted for GLSEN last year found that only 13 percent of American high school students agreed with the statement “I don’t like gay people.” “So the majority of the kids are either neutral or positive,” Jennings says. “They’ll do the right thing if you teach them.”
The result is a school atmosphere far different from the one Jennings faced when he was growing up. “The isolation that characterized this experience for my generation has disappeared,” he says. At the same time, he adds, “school systems haven’t really changed that much. The policies aren’t there, the teachers aren’t getting trained, the curriculum hasn’t changed. So they’re more visible in a system that, by and large, is no more accepting than it was 25 years ago.”
In seeking solutions to this problem, Jennings draws, in part, from his own childhood. In 1972, members of the Ku Klux Klan shot at the school bus carrying him to his first day of 3rd grade in Lewisville, North Carolina, as part of a campaign to deter families from sending their children to a newly desegregated elementary school. More than a decade earlier, four black college students in nearby Greensboro had set societal change in motion by taking seats at the all-white lunch counter of the town’s Woolworth’s, sparking a wave of sit-ins across the South.
So it’s hardly surprising that Jennings’ work focuses on student activism, which includes holding leadership workshops for middle and high schoolers each summer. It’s mid-July, and the students are just arriving in the meeting room of a residence hall at Emory University in Atlanta, where this summer’s group of 73 students from 33 states will learn how to organize GSAs and serve as peer leaders.
Dressed in a white polo shirt, Jennings comes across as quietly serious as he chats with some students, especially compared with his younger colleagues, who, scurrying around in red GLSEN T-shirts, envelop the attendees with camp-counselor-like welcomes. While waiting for stragglers whose flights have been delayed by Hurricane Dennis, Rhys Hackford, a blond senior wearing ripped jeans, talks with her neighbors. She describes her all-girls private school in Massachusetts as “open and accepting.” But there’s a need, she says, to constantly educate people, especially incoming freshmen. Rhys, who came out as bisexual in 8th grade, adds, “I know how I felt going through that. I realized that I didn’t want other people to feel that way, ... so that just really became what I was about.”
When his opening speech finally gets under way, Jennings touches on past civil rights victories. “One day, you will be talking to your child about having come to a conference on fighting something called homophobia. And they’re going to be smiling and nodding”—he affects a vacant, uncomprehending expression—“because all of your kids ... will be studying homophobia in history class, not hearing it in the hallways.”
The students flip through the thick white binders they’ve been given. By joining the leadership team, they’ve agreed to advise students, register new GSAs, and lobby state representatives on student-safety issues. The binders, filled with how-to materials, reinforce the idea that GLSEN expects them to get a lot of stuff done.
The group doesn’t have the visual homogeneity you’d expect in a student leadership program. Half are students of color, straight, or transgender, and while many have the confident demeanor and preppy outfits typically associated with kids who aspire to such positions in schools, others are dressed entirely in black and survey the scene cautiously, slumped in their plastic chairs with arms folded across their chests.
Parent approval is required to attend, though coordinator Lynly Egyes notes that many adults who don’t condone GLSEN’s work do allow their children to participate. “It’ll be something like, ‘I can’t stop them,’ ” she explains. Some parents just need to hear “This looks really good on college applications” before signing the permission slip.
As Jennings’ speech ends, the thoughtful quiet that descends on the group is broken by GLSEN’s student organizing director, Christopher Ramirez, who takes the floor to discuss the workshop’s ground rules—no illegal or sexual behavior and no visiting people in their rooms, regardless of their gender identification.
“Are we going to have talent night? Yes,” Ramirez says. “Are we going to have drag bingo? Yes. But we’re here to work, and there’s not a lot of time. I’m putting my love life on hold while I’m here, and so can you.”
He’s not kidding about the work. The students split into groups of 10 or so and attend up to eight hours’ worth of seminars each day. With just a few breaks for silly songs to boost energy levels, GLSEN staff members and students from previous years serve up huge amounts of information on how to work as a team, organize events, and communicate with the media and government officials. They even discuss what color pens to use on flip charts.
After the workshops, Rhys admits that the amount of effort that goes into activism was a “complete shock.” She adds, “You’re building these skill sets and learning all sorts of strategies. ... It was like, ‘OK, right now I’m totally overwhelmed, but I know that I can make this work.’ ”
A few months later, Jennings is sitting in his New York City office, eating a tuna sandwich and drinking spring water from a bottle. He ignores the pings signaling the arrival of new e-mails as he recalls hearing one student at the Atlanta workshop say that he’d been called names, brutally beaten, and spat upon at his Florida high school. “He told it in this complete deadpan,” Jennings says. “It just reminded me, these young people are incredibly strong and resilient and together, but you scratch the surface, and there’s so much pain there.”
The same could be said of Jennings in the 1970s and early ’80s. In 7th grade gym class, a teacher caught him gazing at another boy’s legs and drew the class’s attention to it. From that point on, his fellow students felt they had carte blanche to taunt him, he writes in an essay in One Teacher in 10: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories, a 1994 anthology he edited: “Whenever I volunteered to answer a question or write on the board, a slightly audible murmur from my classmates would arise. ‘Faggot,’ I would hear. I learned not to volunteer or raise my hand.”
But Jennings excelled academically, becoming the first in his family to go to college. He left North Carolina for Harvard University, where he came out at age 19 and got involved in gay-rights activism. But as a high school teacher at a private school in Rhode Island in the mid-’80s, he realized that North Carolina wasn’t the only place where gay people were expected to be invisible. So in 1987, he got a job at Concord Academy in Massachusetts, where he felt comfortable enough to let students know he was gay—if they asked. Otherwise, he kept his sexual orientation under wraps.
Eventually, Jennings worried that his semi- silence implied that being gay was shameful. So, after obtaining administrative permission, he outed himself in a speech to the student body during one of the school’s nonsecular chapel meetings. Although the audience was receptive, Jennings says that afterward, when he returned to his classroom, he noticed that the blackboard had been covered with graffiti. Certain the scrawlings were epithets, “I temporarily blanked out,” he recalls. “When my vision returned, I read what they had actually written: ‘We love you, Kevin, and we’re so proud of you.’ Each student had signed the board.”
The experience at Concord Academy emboldened Jennings, who in 1990 helped organize a volunteer group of gay and lesbian educators that, five years later, would become GLSEN. Jennings “brings a passion to the job,” says former National Education Association president Bob Chase, who’s a member of GLSEN’s board of directors. Chase, like other supporters, believes that characterizing hostility and indifference toward gay students as an educational issue makes sense. “It was clear to me that learning is hampered when schools fail to provide a safe and nurturing environment,” he explains.
The statistics back him up. According to the National Mental Health Association, 28 percent of gay students—almost three times the national average—end up dropping out of school. And one GLSEN study concludes that the average GPA of frequently harassed LGBT students is 10 percent lower than the average of those harassed infrequently.
Even with statistics and educational leaders supporting Jennings’ cause, youth sexuality is a touchy subject, and GLSEN hasn’t always stayed within the boundaries of what’s appropriate to teach students. Back in 2000, for example, while its Boston chapter was hosting an annual conference for teachers, students, and community members, one of the group’s opponents audiotaped a workshop that caused quite a stir. Presented by two state education employees and a consultant, “What They Didn’t Tell You About Queer Sex and Sexuality in Health Class”answered audience questions about gay sexual practices, including an act commonly known as “fisting.” “To say that the ... workshops and presentations of this state-sponsored event for educators and children are ‘every parent’s nightmare’ does not do them justice,” observed reporters from a conservative Web site who attended the conference.
GLSEN responded by issuing a policy prohibiting explicit content at gatherings. But this past spring, again in Boston, a conservative activist discovered a pamphlet that a community group had distributed at a conference hosted by Brookline public schools. Written for gay men older than 18, the “Little Black Book” made graphic references to sexual activities as part of explanations on reducing the risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases. The pamphlets were distributed without GLSEN’s knowledge, said Sean Haley, the executive director of the Boston chapter, in a statement. He vowed to “redouble our efforts to make sure that our material and the material brought in by other organizations is age-appropriate.”
Such apologies did little to appease critics, including the Article 8 Alliance, a conservative Waltham, Massachusetts, group seeking to repeal same-sex marriage in the state. “How arrogant do they get?” group officials asked rhetorically on their Web site, accusing the Brookline superintendent and GLSEN of “recruiting kids for homosexual activism.”
Because GLSEN’s opponents tend to be activists themselves, this kind of publicity doesn’t exactly encourage school administrators to embrace LGBT issues. In some parts of the country, principals have chosen to ban all extracurricular clubs so that their schools don’t have to sponsor GSAs. Other administrators simply ignore the issue.
That’s the attitude Talia Stein, a former student leadership team member, dealt with for nearly four years at her suburban Chicago high school. In 2001, Stein was a freshman at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois. She and a friend decided their school of 4,500 students, with a national reputation for excellence, needed a gay-straight alliance among its 50 or so clubs.
“The dynamic ... was that [being gay] wasn’t necessarily talked about negatively, unless you came out,” explains Stein, now a poised 18-year-old college freshman with oval glasses and long, curly hair. They gathered student signatures, found a faculty sponsor, and submitted their proposal to the administration, which rejected it. The reason given: “They didn’t want to create a divisive student body,” Stein says.
The following year, while attending a Chicago conference on LGBT education issues, Stein discovered that students had been failing to start GSAs at Stevenson High for nearly a decade. Soon afterward, Stein received e-mails from the GLSEN national office and a lawyer from the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which works against LGBT discrimination.
“That kind of freaked me out,” she recalls. “It was just, ‘Oh, my God, I’m 15, I don’t want to have a lawyer.’ ” The lawyer and GLSEN representatives didn’t pressure her to take action, but they talked about her options and introduced her to the federal Equal Access Act, a 1984 law that requires publicly funded schools to permit student-initiated GSAs to meet on the same basis as other student clubs. In the fall of her junior year, she asked her Lambda Legal lawyer to visit with administrators. That February, the school approved the GSA on a trial basis, and early in 2005 made it an official school club.
While the club, which draws an average of 40 students to its weekly meetings, has been in existence for just over a year, Stein says that having an officially recognized GSA helps students who once felt invisible. “Even if people can’t gather the strength to come to the meetings, you know you have a name, you have a voice, and you have a safe space if you want it.”
Fighting for the club changed her, too, she says. “I found this cause, and everything else just kind of fell into place. I have all these organizing skills and all these public speaking and writing skills that I’m going to have for the rest of my life.”
Students at schools more receptive to GSAs find such stories inspiring. “I didn’t really grasp the concept of how good I have it in New York City,” says Lance Sun, a junior at the Queens High School of Teaching in Bellerose, New York.
Mid-September found him and members of his school’s GSA—a busy group with 10 core members—manning a table outside the lunchroom as students signed a pledge and bought red buttons that declare, “I am an ALLY working to end anti-LGBT bullying, harassment, & name-calling in K-12 schools.” By day’s end, the club had sold all 110 of its buttons, and its members would ultimately gather 137 pledges from classmates at the 900-student school.
Principal Nigel Pugh bought a button and wore it to a district meeting later that week, sparking questions from colleagues about the campaign. Pugh says he was happy to approve the GSA when Lance proposed it last year because it aligns with the values of their institution, a magnet school for students interested in education. “If you want to be a teacher, you’re going to be making a major impact on the lives of young people when they’re at a very impressionable and vulnerable stage, and you yourself have to be a whole person,” he explains.
Of course, not even schools that formally acknowledge such groups are perfect. That same week, a teacher told Lance that she overheard a student making disparaging remarks about gay students and stopped class to discuss his comments. “I know that words of prejudice are occasionally used here,” Pugh admits. “It’s a high school, and that’s the nature of high school.”
If students picking on each other is the nature of things, then why waste time trying to change it? Pugh is surprised at the question. “In education, you are changing the future. And if you don’t believe that, you shouldn’t be in education.”
Vol. 17, Issue 03, Pages 36-39Published in Print: November 1, 2005, as Straight Talk