Kevin Jennings has a message for the people who tried to destroy him: “I'd like you to know that you completely failed.”
I'd reached Jennings last week as he was cleaning out his office on his final day as the head of the Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools -- a position from which anti-gay activists and conservative media outlets had tried unsuccessfully to oust him.
Now that Jennings is leaving on his own terms -- next month he'll become president and CEO of the national nonprofit group Be the Change -- he wants to make sure his detractors understand that they didn't keep him from carrying out his job.
“Despite all of your lies, despite all of your attacks, we managed to galvanize a national campaign against bullying that culminated with the president himself convening a summit on it in the East Room of the White House, which he personally keynoted," he says. "So despite your best efforts to derail what I was brought here to do, we were able to bring an unprecedented level of attention and energy to fighting bullying in a way never before done in this country.
“So, in the end, anybody looking back over the last two years would have to conclude that it is a complete and total victory for us and a complete and total defeat for our opponents, because they tried to derail -- and they used defamation to try and derail the work I was brought here to do, and they completely failed to do so. They completely and totally failed. And I want them to know that.”
Jennings isn't exaggerating when he refers to “defamation.”
Throughout the fall of 2009, Jennings -- who had spent the previous 19 years running the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) -- was the target of what he calls a “completely stunning” campaign of character assassination. Years-old lies, many of which had been recycled from an obscure Massachusetts hate group, were suddenly blasted out to the country by Fox News, The Washington Times, Andrew Breitbart's blog empire, and the rest of the conservative media.
Jennings was falsely accused of “encouraging” and “covering up” statutory rape. He was falsely accused of being a “pedophile.” He was falsely accused of having “personally pushed books that encouraged children to meet adults at gay bars for sex.” Karl Rove falsely claimed Jennings had engaged in “high-profile, in-your-face advocacy of things like NAMBLA.”
“I chose to ignore it [at first] because I thought it was a bunch of extreme right-wing stuff that nobody would ever pay attention to, and then the next thing I knew, it was on Fox News every night,” says Jennings. He remembers being at a Department of Education meeting about preventing drug abuse when the story first hit Fox in September 2009. He says he entered “a state of shock, like, 'I can't believe this is happening to me.' ”
“There were times when I questioned, 'Is this worth it?' ” explains Jennings. “Because when you're seeing your entire character being systematically destroyed by a defamation campaign, you begin to ask yourself, 'Is this worth the price?' ”
“There were times in the fall of 2009 when I really went home and curled up in a ball in my bed and didn't want to get out of bed the next day,” he says. “But I got out of bed every day. I went to 33 states and three foreign countries doing this work in two years, and we succeeded in doing what we came here to do.”
At one point, 53 House Republicans signed a letter to President Obama claiming that Jennings had “played an integral role in promoting homosexuality and pushing a pro-homosexual agenda in America's schools.” They demanded that Jennings be fired.
But Jennings says he “never felt pressure” from his bosses to resign, and he credits the White House with standing by him. “I'm really proud to have had the chance to serve in this administration,” he tells me. “I'm really proud of the White House for standing by me when a lot of people might have wanted to cut me loose. It might have been smarter politically for them to cut me loose, but they chose to stand by me because they valued the work I was trying to do here, and I'm incredibly grateful to the White House for that.”
Jennings says that he'd made up his mind early on that no matter how bad the smears got, he wouldn't resign. In fact, he sees the attacks on him as analogous to the schoolyard bullying that it was his job to confront.
“I'd come here to do something very important, and that was to galvanize the national campaign against bullying. And I wasn't going to be derailed from that work by a bunch of bullies and liars, which is what I was dealing with. ... I thought it'd be ironic if I came here to fight bullying and I let the bullies win.
”So at the very beginning of this, my partner and I talked, and we said, 'No matter how bad it gets, I would not resign.' Under no circumstances would I ever give in. And I'm proud to say that the White House never even raised that as a possibility with me, so it was never a decision I was ever asked to make. But we decided -- I remember the day the first attacks came out, Jeff and I talked, and we said no matter what happens, we're not going to quit. We're not going to let these type of lies, these type of bullies continue to run the show. We were going to stand our ground."
It's clearly a deeply personal issue for Jennings. In his memoir, he writes about being tormented as a child by other students who would call him “faggot” and “queer.” As an adult, he founded GLSEN, an organization that has helped establish gay-straight alliances in schools across the country.
Jennings tells me he accepted the Department of Education job after reading a news story about Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old boy from Massachusetts. Walker-Hoover, who didn't identify as gay, hung himself in April 2009 after enduring repeated anti-gay harassment at school.
“On my first day here, I'd had buttons made up with Carl's school picture on them, and I handed them out to all the staff and told them that that's why I had come. It was because I wanted to make sure there would never be another Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover,” says Jennings.
Last year, Jennings was confronted with a highly publicized series of teen suicides that were linked to anti-gay bullying.
“I know the families of an enormous number of the young people who died,” says Jennings, explaining that the families sought him out after their children died. “It was really personally draining because I do care very much about this on a personal level, and I knew how much these parents were counting on me and counting on the president to actually do something. ... They'd lost their children, they'd been through the greatest tragedy I think any human being can experience, which is the loss of their child, and they came to us, to this administration -- came to me and, by extension through me, to the president -- and said, 'Please do something.' So talk about feeling an enormous burden to do something and to do it right when you know that you're doing this on behalf of people who have lost their children. It was this enormous sense of responsibility, an enormous feeling of -- we had to succeed because there was so much at stake.”
Jennings says the crisis “threw a spotlight” on the urgency of the issue, which he had been working on since he joined the administration in 2009. “People were much more willing to listen to us and to do what we were suggesting because what was at stake became so tragically clear.”
In the end, Jennings views his work as a success. “We have forever changed the national dialogue around bullying,” he says. “I think that we had our tipping point moment around bullying in the last two years, where bullying became something that the United States simply said, 'No more.' Now, that doesn't mean bullying has gone away -- it's still there -- but I think we have achieved a gigantic shift in national consciousness, that we have turned the tide. I see school officials at all levels, from state, local, and federal, have dedicated themselves to doing something about this. Unprecedented levels of activity from the government itself. I think that we have forever shifted the dialogue around bullying in this country.
”And so when I look back on my two years here, I will leave feeling completely vindicated and proud of what we were able to do, that indeed I did come here for the right reason, and we were able to do what we set out to do -- despite the lies and despite the defamation."