Kevin Jennings Cleared by the Rest of Brewster’s Story

The Religious Right has been part of the Obama Czar Witch Hunt for some time now. Their most recent victim is Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary (not czar) for Safe and Drug-Free Schools. Sec. Jennings has been a prominent advocate for LGBT teens, founding the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in 1990.

The attacks actually began in June, when Family Research Council posted supposedly shocking quotes from Jennings. You can read about it at Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters and Good As You, and more recent iterations at Media Matters and Right Wing Watch.

The biggest allegation, and most relevant to Jennings’ job in the Department of Education, is that he failed to report a case of statutory rape. The evidence that supposedly proves their case is a speech Jennings gave to the Iowa chapter of GLSEN in 2000.

I believe this allegation is false — and I have proof.

Below is a snippet of the speech (I don’t know what that sound is either):

And a transcript from Media Matters:

And I said, “Brewster, what are you doing in there asleep?” And he said, “Well, I’m tired.” And I said, “Well, we all are tired and we all got to school today.” And he said, “Well, I was out late last night.” And I said, “What were you doing out late on a school night?” And he said, “Well, I was in Boston.”

Boston was about 45 minutes from Concord. So I said, “What were you doing in Boston on a school night, Brewster?” He got very quiet, and he finally looked at me and said, “Well, I met somebody in the bus station bathroom and I went home with him.”

High school sophomore, 15 years old. That was the only way he knew how to meet gay people.

I was a closeted gay teacher, 24 years old, didn’t know what to say. Knew I should say something quickly, so I finally — my best friend had just died of AIDS the week before — I looked at Brewster and said, “You know, I hope you knew to use a condom.” He said to me something I will never forget. He said “Why should I, my life isn’t worth saving anyway.”

The point of Sec. Jennings’ speech seems to have been that LGBT high school students don’t have a built in way to meet other LGBT people, increasing the likelihood that they will enter into dangerous situations in an attempt to understand their difference from everybody they know and feel normal.

Seems spot on to me, and it illustrates the need to create Gay Straight Alliances and GLSEN Safe Spaces to give LGBT students a fighting chance. Jennings hopes to decrease the probability of dangerous situations by addressing the underlying problem.

But let’s move back to the question of age. In this speech, Kevin Jennings quite clearly said that the boy was 15 years old. The age of consent in Massachusetts is 16. Therefore, Jennings clearly should have reported what Brewster told him, right?

Not so fast, kemo sabe. What if we had another account of Brewster’s story that contradicts the motivational speech Jennings was giving in 2000?

Kevin Jennings: Protecting Kids, Not Hurting Them
Kevin Jennings: Protecting Kids, Not Hurting Them
Sec. Jennings also told about Brewster in his 1994 book One Teacher in Ten. It’s sadly out of print, but through the magic of the internets, we have a copy of that chapter at the Queer Resources Directory (local pdf format here). Here’s some of the pertinent text:

I remember Brewster, a sophomore boy who I came to know in 1987, my first year of teaching at Concord Academy, in Concord, Massachusetts. […] Toward the end of my first year, during the spring of 1988, Brewster appeared in my office in the tow of one of my advisees, a wonderful young woman to whom I had been “out” for a long time. “Brewster has something he needs to talk with you about,” she intoned ominously. Brewster squirmed at the prospect of telling, and we sat silently for a short while. On a hunch, I suddenly asked “What’s his name?” Brewster’s eyes widened briefly, and then out spilled a story about his involvement with an older man he had met in Boston. I listened, sympathized, and offered advice. He left my office with a smile on his face that I would see every time I saw him on the campus for the next two years, until he graduated.

It’s clearly the same story that Jennings told in 2000, right? Same kid, same situation. He didn’t mention the condom here, but it wasn’t quite the point that section. In this case, Brewster’s story is an illustration of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell attitude that people expect of LGBT people. Jennings does say that he “offered advice”, and I’m guessing that’s what he was talking about.

Seven paragraphs later is something that most people miss. Jennings mentions Brewster again.

I remember April 3, 1993, when I went to Club Cafe, a gay restaurant in Boston, for the annual awards dinner of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights. An organization I had helped found, GLSTN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Teachers Network), was being honored that night, and I had come to accept the award on our behalf. I sat with some friends, my back to the center of the room, and soon got engaged in conversation. From behind me, I heard a familiar voice. “Care for a drink, sir?”

I turned and it was Brewster. Shocked, we were both speechless for a moment, before we hugged each other and caught up. He was now twenty-two, taking time off from college, and living with his boyfriend. His smile showed that he had found his way to a happy adulthood. In that moment, I remembered why I had gone into teaching in the first place.

Did you catch it? In April 1993, Brewster was 22 years old. That means that in spring 1988, when the beginning of the story takes place, he was not 15 years old, but 17. Even assuming a spring birthday, he would have been 16, which if you’ll remember, is the legal age of consent in Massachusetts.

Good storytellers embellish a little here and there, sometimes for the particular audience and sometimes because it just makes a better story. Sometimes because it’s been awhile and some of the facts have gotten fuzzy. Maybe that’s what happened with Jennings’ 2000 speech.

Now, if you ask me, this is a secondary issue. To out a gay 15-year-old to her/his parents in 2009 is horrifying. To do it in 1988? Brewster could very easily become one of the many LGBT teens who don’t have a home because their parents found out. Or worse, he could have become one of the many LGBT suicide victims.

Kevin Jennings is not dangerous. He is not unfit to serve the Department of Education. He is not, as Bob Ellis of the Dakota Voice put it today, “The Fox Guarding The Hen House”. (That analogy would, of course, render Jennings a rapist. Classy!)

Quite frankly, I dare you to find one who is better qualified than Secretary Kevin Jennings. He is doing what he’s been doing for nearly two decades: Protecting our students, providing safe learning environments, and helping a new generation of students not learn to hate themselves. For that, he deserves our gratitude, not lies and slander.

By the way, I do recommend that you read that entire excerpt from One Teacher in Ten.