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The Lesson of Kevin Jennings

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Since Obama's election, I have watched the right wing's smear machine with perverse fascination. The antics of Beck, Hannity, and the rest of the gang have been predictable, pathetic, and desperate, but also weirdly entertaining. At least, I used to think so. It's different when they target someone you know.

I met Kevin Jennings twenty-five years ago at Harvard when he directed me in a production of Vieux Carré by Tennessee Williams. Kevin intimidated me. He was so sure of who he was, unlike those of us closeted Harvard boys in the eighties who were still afraid of our own shadows. Kevin would have none of that. Raised in the religious south, he had been forced to come to terms with his identity in ways I couldn't imagine.

We became friends and served together on the drama club board. Kevin was opinionated, maddening, and brilliant. Our paths crossed occasionally over the years, the last time a year ago at an event in Cambridge where I saw him hounding people to increase their support for the Obama campaign. I still found him intimidating. Because since we met at the Loeb Drama Center all those years ago, Kevin had used his passion and his gifts to do something extraordinary. He made the world a better place for others.

In the battles over education, Kevin Jennings has been on the front lines, first as a teacher, and then as the founder of GLSEN, an invaluable organization that took on the radioactive issues of sexual identity and free speech in our schools. Through his advocacy and tireless hard work, Kevin made schools safer for kids and teachers who were different, who were being bullied and harassed every day, sometimes to the point of suicide.

Several years ago, I was invited to speak at a gay/straight student alliance at my own high school. Such an organization was unthinkable when I was a student, and seeing those happy, well-adjusted kids, both gay and straight, celebrating and supporting each other was a revelation. GLSEN was an important part of that. I saw the difference Kevin's work had made in their lives. It was work that needed to be done, and Kevin had the guts to do it.

The current attacks on Kevin are based, as usual, on taking things he has said or written over the years wildly out of context. (Media Matters is doing an excellent job of covering and countering the lies.) This campaign began because conservatives think Kevin is a threat to their values and beliefs. They're right. He is. They don't want anyone to help gay kids, no matter how much they suffer, because they don't believe gay kids exist. But gay kids do exist. (I know, I was one.) And no amount of bullying, propaganda, phony science, prayer, or violence will make them go away. They never have and they never will.

Part of the change the majority of us voted for last November was for a government that would, at long last, recognize and grapple with reality. We were desperate for public servants who would deal with America not as some pretend it is, but as it truly is -- a place where life is complicated, at times unjust, and often morally ambiguous; a place where some people take their position of privilege for granted while some others suffer and are persecuted for no good reason. We wanted, at long last, a government of adults who would face the challenges of real life head on.

Through his work in education, Kevin Jennings has done that in a way that few others have.

The cynical attempt by the right to destroy Kevin's career and reputation, simply to score political points and raise money, is a disgrace. It is also a gut check for the Obama administration and its supporters. Van Jones, the last controversial administration figure targeted, was immediately thrown under the bus. We now see what that capitulation has wrought -- Faux (also spelled Fox) outrage manufactured against any public servants deemed vulnerable by virtue of their ideas or, even more conveniently, their minority status.

If the sudden popularity of Rep. Alan Grayson teaches us anything, it's that what Americans respect most in politicians is the strength to stand firm, without apology. It's time that all Democrats learn from what Kevin Jennings has been teaching for decades.

The bullying has to stop.