Activist, teacher and author Kevin Jennings (b. 1963) responded to his anger over being taunted as a young student by founding the first organization to address gay bullying in the U.S. As leader of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Jennings campaigned tirelessly to educate teachers, parents, students, and community members about ending bias in K-12 schools. Although Jennings left his post as executive director of GLSEN in 2008, his legacy lives on in the GLSEN chapters that proliferate throughout the country.
Constantly bullied by his brothers, teachers and fellow students, at the start of the tenth grade Jennings, with the assistance of his mother, transferred to a high school for gifted and talented students. There he joined the debate team and had his first sexual experience with another male. Jennings’ father, a Baptist preacher, had died of a heart attack when Kevin was nine years old, and his mother struggled to support her children as a single, uneducated parent working at a fast food restaurant. Just before his high school junior year, Kevin and his mother moved to Hawaii to live with his sister, because his mother was exhausted from trying to scrape by on a minimum wage. When it came time to consider college, Jennings applied to Harvard and was accepted. Kevin thrived in that collegiate atmosphere and did well academically. He somehow gained the confidence to come out of the closet and subsequently told his mother that he was gay. She did not take the news well, and for years afterward they had a strained relationship.
After graduating from Harvard in 1985, Jennings accepted a teaching job in Rhode Island. Two years later he took a position on the faculty of Concord Academy in Massachusetts, where he came out to the entire campus in a Chapel Talk in the fall of 1988. His students embraced his bravery and convictions. One of his students, a girl whose mother was lesbian, asked Jennings to help her start a "Gay-Straight Alliance" at the academy. Jennings took up the cause and thus began his two-decade effort to support, protect and encourage glbtq students, and today there are more than 4,200 Gay-Straight Alliances. As he accepted speaking engagements at other schools, he was convinced that a national organization was needed to address the concerns of glbtq students, and in 1990 Jennings was one of four founders of GLISTeN, the Gay and Lesbian Independent School Teacher Network. The next year the organization changed its name to GLSTN, Gay and Lesbian School Teachers Network.
Jennings was awarded a Klingenstein Fellowship at Columbia University's Teachers College. After receiving his M.A., he began work to make GLSTN a national organization. Jennings met financial consultant Jeff Davis, his life partner, at GLSTN's first event in NYC in 1994. Kevin also published two books that chronicled the stories of gay students and teachers. Four other books on related issues followed later in his career.
Shortly thereafter Jennings conceived, helped write and produce a documentary called Out of the Past, a film based on the story of Kelli Peterson, a lesbian student who tried to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at a Utah high school in 1996. The incident, in which the school system banned all school clubs to prevent Kelli’s success, grabbed national headlines. The film went on to win the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
Jennings was invited to the White House in 1997, at the request of President Clinton’s liaison to the glbtq community. Clinton wanted to repair his relationship with that constituency after he was unable to keep his promise to end the ban on gays in the military.
Jennings went on to be named to Newsweek Magazine's "Century Club" a compendium of 100 people to watch in the new century. He was also the recipient of the Human and Civil Rights Award of the National Education Association.
When a spate of suicides by bullied gay youths occurred in 2009, Jennings helped convene the first White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, headlined by the President and Mrs. Obama. In 2011, Kevin resigned his position at the Department of Education in order to head a new non-profit organization, "Be the Change," dedicated to addressing the growing problem of economic inequality in the country (Jennings had grown up dirt poor). A deciding factor was his ability to return to NYC to spend more time with his partner. Jennings has said that the anti-bullying movement he started has enough momentum and resources to go on without his active participation.
Note: This post is a condensation of an article by Victoria Shannon on the www.glbtq.com web site.