Sean Hannity began his show Wednesday night by promising “shocking new allegations about President Obama’s safe-schools czar. Does Kevin Jennings support the group NAMBLA?” Onscreen, the notorious acronym—which stands for the North American Man Boy Love Association, a pro-pedophile group—appeared in red next to a particularly unflattering photo of Jennings. Before Hannity got to the “shocking new allegations” themselves, he interviewed a former FBI agent who infiltrated NAMBLA, eliciting chilling and depraved stories, including one about a conference where NAMBLA members expressed approval of sex with 18-month-old babies.
On Monday, Republican Rep. Steve King sent a letter to Obama calling on him to fire Jennings. “Mr. Jennings life’s work has been the promotion of homosexuality, much of it in our elementary schools,” he wrote.
It's hard to imagine anything more damning for a public figure than a link to some of the country’s most shameless sexual abusers. Of course, when Hannity finally got to his “new allegations,” the only thing shocking about them was their flimsiness. Jennings once expressed admiration for the radical gay activist Harry Hay, co-founder of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay-rights groups in the United States. Hay advocated for the inclusion of NAMBLA in gay pride parades. A despicable position on Hay’s part, sure, but one that Jennings has nothing to do with, unless one believes that we’re all morally culpable for the actions of everyone we’ve ever praised.
The illogic didn’t really matter, though, because the right’s escalating war on Jennings is all about appealing to primal emotion. Jennings, the assistant deputy secretary of Education in charge of the Office of Safe & Drug-Free Schools, is the target of one of the ugliest homophobic witch-hunts we’ve seen in a while. It plays directly into classic right-wing narratives of predatory gay recruitment. “Children don’t need to be learning about homosexual practices in elementary school,” says Princeton Professor Robert George, in a video on the anti-Jennings Web site preserveinnocence.org. On Monday, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) sent a letter to Obama calling on him to fire Jennings. “Mr. Jennings' life’s work has been the promotion of homosexuality, much of it in our elementary schools,” he wrote.
The message is clear—Kevin Jennings, a man hired to protect children, is actually out to pervert them. Conservatives are determined to make Jennings the next Van Jones. And as with Jones, the White House probably should have seen this coming.
That’s not to say that his nomination was a mistake. Jennings has had an illustrious career as an educator, and is especially renowned for his anti-bullying work. He’s the founder of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which strives to encourage tolerance in schools. Given the abuse that gay and lesbian kids are often subject to, this is crucial work. In his autobiography Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son, Jennings recounts stories of students like Steven, a suicidal 18-year-old who said, “I just began hating myself more and more, as each year the hatred toward me grew and escalated from simple name-calling in elementary school to having people in high school threaten to beat me up, being pushed and dragged around on the ground, having hands slammed in lockers, and a number of other daily tortures.” Even Bill O’Reilly once seemed to recognize the importance of Jennings’ cause. Last year, on one of his “pinheads and patriots” segments, he named Hilary Duff a “patriot” for a public-service spot she made for GLSEN.
Yet Jennings’ work certainly provides some red meat for the right. He wrote the foreword to a 1999 book whose title, Queering Elementary Education, was bound to drive conservatives into lusty ecstasies of outrage. The book itself, which is about dealing with anti-gay prejudice among children, is innocuous. Jennings' introduction makes a common-sense argument: “It’s not a question of whether we should ‘bring this issue into our schools.’ It’s a question of whether or not we are going to address an issue that is omnipresent in our schools.” For anyone who has spent time around '90s academia, with its passion for postmodern neologisms, the word “Queering” will be familiar, even a bit cliché, and clearly means bringing queer studies to bear on educational analysis, rather than turning elementary schools queer.
But that’s not an easy thing to explain in a TV soundbite. Conservatives have spent decades fulminating against a gay conspiracy to promote their unwholesome “agenda” in public schools. Here’s a book that looks like a manual for doing just that—and the guy who wrote the foreword is now part of the Department of Education. The right was bound to go nuts.
Thus the attacks on Jennings have all been designed to show him as somehow pro-pedophile. Conservatives seized on an incident Jennings described in another of his books, One Teacher in 10: Gay, Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories. In it, he wrote of a troubled student who confided in him about his relationship with an older man. Right-wingers claimed that by not calling the police, Jennings was abetting the sexual abuse of a minor. It turns out that the student was 16 at the time—the age of consent in Massachusetts, where the incident took place. The student recently wrote, “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.”
As Hannity’s NAMBLA smear shows, the attacks are only getting more and more phantasmagorical. One might argue that the administration should have spared itself the trouble and found someone else for the job. But having appointed Jennings, it’s now crucial that the White House stands by him.
There’s an important difference between Jennings and Van Jones. Jones, enormously admirable as he is, really did put his name on a 9/11 Truth petition. That’s hard to defend both politically and on its merits. Queering Elementary Education is probably just as damaging politically, but there’s nothing at all wrong with the book itself. If Jennings is let go, it will send the message that he has indeed done something shameful, that there’s something to the calumnies being heaped on him. Not only that, it will look like an admission that the Obama administration truly was cavalier with the safety of children.
Gay issues, so central to our politics a few years ago, have lately faded away. In the next few weeks, though, they’re going to come roaring back. On Wednesday, Obama nominated an openly gay ambassador, David Huebner, to New Zealand and Samoa. On Saturday, Obama will be keynote speaker at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s most prominent gay-rights group. This weekend, there will be a major gay-rights march on Washington. The right has, in the past, had quite a bit of political success in targeting gay people. If Jennings falls, they’ll be emboldened, and we can look forward to many more years of culture war déjà vu.
Michelle Goldberg is the author ofThe Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.