Media Matters for America examines and debunks the wide array of falsehoods and distortions the right-wing media have used in their attempts to smear and discredit Department of Education official Kevin Jennings and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which Jennings founded and previously served as executive director.
REALITY: MassResistance is an anti-gay “hate group.” Accuracy in Media pointed readers to the website of the Massachusetts-based anti-gay group MassResistance to get “the facts on Jennings,” stating that the group's longtime leader Brian Camenker “has covered the scandal of Obama's appointment of Jennings in much detail.” Many right-wing outlets have relied on the group's false or misleading claims about Jennings in attacking him. MassResistance has been labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center; even conservative commentator Dean Barnett has stated that the organization “verges on being a hate group.” Camenker himself reportedly denied that gays and lesbians were targeted during the Holocaust and has compared the gay rights movement to the Nazis.
REALITY: Right-wing media unleashed anti-gay rhetoric in attacks on Jennings. In their attacks on Jennings, numerous conservative media figures have resorted to thinly veiled homophobic appeals to paint Jennings, who is gay, as a “radical” “gay activist” with an “agenda” of “promoting homosexuality in schools,” and have misrepresented or distorted Jennings' previous comments about religion and tolerance. Moreover, in a blatant appeal to homophobia, the right-wing media have termed a series of allegations “Fistgate,” even though several of those allegations have little or nothing to do with the sexual practice of fisting -- or, for that matter, with Jennings himself.
REALITY: Student was at least 16 -- the legal age of consent -- when he spoke to Jennings. Numerous right-wing and Fox News media figures advanced the falsehood that Jennings, in the words of Fox News host Bill Hemmer, knew of a “statutory rape” and “never reported it,” based on Jennings' past statements about advice he gave to a student who told him about his relationship with an older man when Jennings was a high school teacher in the late 1980s. In fact, a 2004 letter from Jennings' attorney, as well as a statement from the former student and his Massachusetts driver's license definitively show that he was at least 16 -- the legal age of consent in Massachusetts -- when he approached Jennings.
SMEAR: Jennings “urged” student to “further the relationship” with “older man ... forcing his way” on him and to “keep quiet”
REALITY: No evidence supports these claims. WorldNetDaily, in at least four separate articles, falsely claimed that Jennings “counseled a 15-year-old student to keep quiet about being seduced by an older man.” Likewise, Limbaugh accused Jennings of having “encouraged” and “facilitated the relationship,” and claimed that he “urged” the “15-year-old” to “further the relationship” with “older man ... forcing his way” on him. In fact, nothing in Jennings' 2000 speech for the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, his 1994 book, or the student's own statement in any way suggests that the student told Jennings that someone was “forcing his way on” him or that Jennings “urged” the student to “further the relationship,” nor do they support the claim that Jennings told the student to “keep quiet.”
REALITY: Jennings once praised Hay for his pioneering gay civil rights work. Right-wing media sources including The Washington Examiner, The Fox Nation, The Washington Times, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Karl Rove, have linked Jennings to the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) based on a 1997 speech in which Jennings praised gay rights activist Harry Hay. But like many obituaries written about Hay upon his death in 2002, Jennings was touting Hay as a gay civil rights pioneer for his role in helping start “the first ongoing gay rights groups in America” in 1948, and Jennings' comments had nothing to do with NAMBLA.
REALITY: Group credited with improving awareness, treatment of disease. Hannity and The Washington Times editorial board have insisted that Jennings' past involvement with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) somehow disqualifies him from serving in the Obama administration. But such arguments are absurd, given that ACT UP, an anti-AIDS activist organization, has been credited with both creating awareness of the AIDS epidemic in America and facilitating more effective treatment of the disease. For example, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reportedly stated that ACT UP played “a significant role in the whole idea of expanded access to experimental drugs.”
REALITY: Exhibit actually features “posters, stickers, and other visual media” used by ACT UP's AIDS activists. Right-wing web sites attempted to smear Jennings by claiming that he, in the words of Gateway Pundit, “funded a pornographic anti-Christian art show.” In fact, Jennings is listed on a Harvard Art Museum press release as providing a gift to the museum's exhibit ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993. According to the release, the exhibit includes “over 70 politically-charged posters, stickers, and other visual media that emerged during a pivotal moment of AIDS activism in New York City” and “chronicles New York's AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) through an examination of compelling graphics created by various artist collectives that populated the group.”
REALITY: Jennings' group recommended adults review books for suitability. Conservative blogs and The Washington Times editorial board have claimed that Jennings is unfit as “Safe Schools Czar” because he supposedly promoted “child porn” by allowing GLSEN to recommend for students in grades 7-12 books that included sexually explicit content. The organization, however, specifically stated on its book list website that “some titles for adolescent readers contain mature themes” and recommended that “adults selecting books for youth review content for suitability”; further, schools regularly teach books that contain sexually explicit material. In a December 11 statement, Martin Garnar, chair of the American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee, said: “Though Jennings' and GLSEN's critics claim to be upholding American morals and values by condemning the GLSEN book list, they are actually undermining the values of tolerance, free inquiry, and self-determination that inform and sustain our democratic way of life in the United States.”
REALITY: Jennings criticized content of state employees' workshop at GLSEN/Boston conference. Several right-wing media outlets have claimed that Jennings is, in the words of Fox Nation, “linked to shocking teen sex talk,” referring to a recorded exchange that occurred during a “Queer Sex and Sexuality” workshop during a 2000 conference sponsored by the Boston branch of GLSEN. In fact, Jennings reportedly criticized some of the workshop's content when the recordings were first released in 2000, and the people involved in conducting the controversial discussion were state employees and contractors, not GLSEN employees.
REALITY: Critics have presented no credible evidence that Jennings knew the specific contents of the workshop in advance. WorldNetDaily and Gateway Pundit's Jim Hoft have both claimed that Jennings knew about the controversial workshop's contents ahead of time, citing a MassResistance blog post which claims, "Of course Jennings and the Massachusetts Department of Education knew beforehand what the 'sexuality educators' would discuss with children at the 'fisting' workshop. The instructor Margot Abels said so herself" [emphasis in original]. But the statements MassResistance cites Abels reportedly making indicate only that her immediate supervisors in the Department of Education were aware of her work -- not Jennings or other GLSEN officials. Moreover, while MassResistance claims that Jennings “worked hand in hand with the Mass. Department of Education from the beginning, as co-chair of the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth education committee,” Jennings left that commission years before the 2000 workshop took place.
REALITY: Planned Parenthood distributed safe sex kits including “instructions for how to make a 'dental dam.' ” Conservative bloggers have followed Hoft's lead in claiming that “fisting kits” -- often placed in quotes -- were distributed at the 2001 GLSEN/Boston conference. But those bloggers have presented no evidence that the kits distributed by Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts were actually intended for fisting. Indeed, while the conservative newspaper Massachusetts News - cited by Hoft -- reported in 2001 that the kits were “intended for 'fisting' or oral sex,” the paper described the kit's contents as “a single plastic glove, a package of K-Y lubricant and instructions on how to make a 'dental dam' out of the material,” and offered no support for their claim that the kits were “intended for 'fisting.'” FoxNews.com has reported that Hoft “alleged that Jennings and GLSEN were involved in Planned Parenthood's purported distribution of 'fisting kits,'” but that the kit “was actually for making a 'dental dam' -- designed to prevent STD transmission during oral sex.”
REALITY: Community health group -- not GLSEN -- says it mistakenly brought “about 10 copies” of booklet banned under GLSEN policy to conference. Conservative bloggers and the Washington Times editorial board have falsely stated or suggested that GLSEN had distributed to children an explicit safe-sex booklet which included “the addresses and phone numbers of Boston-area gay bars” and “Pushed Anal S*x in Parks With Strangers.” In fact, a community health group -- not GLSEN itself -- reportedly said that it had mistakenly “left about 10 copies” of the booklet on an informational table it rented at a 2005 GLSEN conference at Brookline High School in Massachusetts; the group reportedly apologized for doing so; GLSEN stated that if it had known the booklets had been at the conference, it would have demanded they be removed; and the Brookline school superintendent reportedly said he believed no students had actually taken the book.
REALITY: Chicago Area Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce -- not Jennings or GLSEN -- produced guide for GLSEN national conference. Hoft has claimed that GLSEN “passed out guides to gay leather bars in Chicago to students in 2000.” But according to an October 7, 2000, press release from the anti-gay groups Americans for Truth, the Chicago Area Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce -- not Jennings or GLSEN -- produced a visitor's guide that was distributed at GLSEN's annual conference in Chicago. That guide reportedly, according to the press release, “contain[ed] a full-page ad for Steamworks, a homosexual bathhouse in Chicago” [Americans for Truth press release, 10/7/00 (from the Nexis database)]. According to right-wing WorldNetDaily, “Organizers said around 800 people, including teenage students, some of whom received financial scholarships, attended the event.”
REALITY: Even right-wing Accuracy in Media acknowledged there is “no evidence to support” that smear. On December 10, a blogger for Accuracy in Media, which purports to “set the record straight on important issues that have received slanted coverage” falsely claimed Jennings is a “pedophile.” Shortly after Media Matters brought attention to the blog post and noted that no allegations of pedophilia have been made against Jennings and that the only evidence the blogger appeared to cite to support her allegation was a false claim, the post was removed without comment. The following day, Accuracy in Media stated that it “regret[s] the publication” of the blog post and that it has “no evidence to support” that allegation that Jennings is a “pedophile.”
REALITY: Jennings said promoting sexual orientation in schools was “ineffective.” Andrew Breitbart and The Washington Times grossly distorted comments Jennings made to a GLSEN audience in 2000 to claim he “spoke about the promotion of homosexuality in the public school curriculum” and “criticize[d] schools for promoting heterosexuality.” In fact, in the audio files posted by the Times and Breitbart, Jennings promoted a curriculum that demands “respect [for] every human being regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of gender identity, regardless of race or religion or any of the arbitrary distinctions we make among people,” and said that efforts to promote a specific sexual orientation through schools were ineffective.
REALITY: Jennings called for course on “issues of bias in the classroom.” The Washington Times' Kerry Picket reprinted a doctored transcript -- originally posted by a conservative blog -- of 2008 comments by Jennings to falsely claim Jennings had said he wanted teachers to be required to “take an LGBT course” -- a claim also echoed by The Fox Nation. In fact, responding to an audience member who asked about how to combat stereotypes held by teachers based on race, gender, and ethnicity as well as sexual orientation, Jennings did not call for a mandatory “LGBT course,” but rather called for a mandatory course on “issues of bias in the classroom” for aspiring teachers in order for them to be aware of “how biases can influence how you interact with your students.”
REALITY: Jennings called for valuing “every human being as a precious gift.” Hannity and Karl Rove attempted to link the foreword Jennings wrote for the 1999 book Queering Elementary Education: Advancing the Dialogue about Sexualities and Schooling to his purported support for NAMBLA and statutory rape. In fact, in the foreword -- which, contrary to Rove's and Hannity's suggestions, had nothing to do with statutory rape -- Jennings called for valuing “every human being as a precious gift” and looked forward to the day when people could “walk down our streets without fear.”
REALITY: Jennings indicated that “he later returned to religion,” he went on to join board of a Protestant seminary. Conservative media figures Brian Kilmeade and David Limbaugh have highlighted what they termed Jennings' teenage “hatred for God” or “contempt for religion,” based on a statement Jennings made in his memoir describing his mindset more than 30 years ago. But later in his memoir, Jennings writes that he since found from the Bible “the inspiration I need to continue my work,” and he went on to serve on the board of the Union Theological Seminary.
REALITY: Jennings has received broad support from education and other officials. Several right-wing media figures have called for Jennings' firing or resignation, based on smears detailed elsewhere in this document. But their caricatures of Jennings are undercut by the fact that education and other officials have spoken highly of Jennings, who has received numerous awards and was a one-time appointee of Republican Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.
SMEAR: Jennings “Personally Pushed Books That Encouraged Children to Meet Adults at Gay Bars For Sex”
REALITY: Book in no way supports this claim. Hoft falsely claimed that Jennings “Personally Pushed Books That Encouraged Children to Meet Adults at Gay Bars For Sex,” citing MassResistance's falsehood that a book Jennings recommended to high school and college students, One Teenager in 10, “encourage[s] teens to, among other things, go to gay bars and have sex with adults to see if they like it.” Media Matters for America has reviewed the book, compiled all references to gay bars, and determined that the book at no point encourages teens to “go to gay bars and have sex with adults”; in fact, a majority of the youth testimonials included in the book that mention gay bars refer to them negatively.
REALITY: Jennings is head of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, created by the Bush administration. Numerous right-wing media have referred to Jennings as the “White House Safe Schools Czar.” In fact, Jennings' actual title is "Assistant Deputy Secretary for Safe and Drug-Free Schools, US Department of Education," and he is a member of the senior staff of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, not part of the White House staff. He directs The Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, which was established under the Bush administration and previously headed by Bush administration appointees Eric G. Andell and Deborah A. Price. A search of the Nexis database finds no indication that either Andell or Price were ever referred to as a “czar.” Media Matters has noted that in attacking so-called Obama administration “czars” as unaccountable, Fox News frequently targeted officials who have been confirmed by the Senate, were appointed to positions created through legislation passed by Congress, or had counterparts in the Bush administration.