THE PLANK OCTOBER 13, 2009
Recently, several conservatives have been lashing out at a favorite new target: Kevin Jennings, the Obama administration's openly gay "safe schools czar." Both Sean Hannity and Republican Congressman Steve King have called for Jennings to be fired or to resign. Their main beef? That Jennings didn't contact authorities when, as a high school teacher in Massachusetts in the 1980s, a male student confided in him about a sexual encounter with an older man. (And, for good measure, his opponents usually follow this point up with claims that Jennings has a nefarious homosexual agenda that he wants to force on the nation’s schoolchildren.) I spent some time yesterday reading the articles and transcripts in which Fox pundits and other right-wingers have attacked Jennings, and one thing that struck me was how consistently they've conflated Jennings with Roman Polanski.
A quick review: Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl and then hid from the law for more than three decades. Kevin Jennings asked his student, who approached him as the nation's gay community was being ravaged by AIDS, if he knew how to use a condom--but didn't report the incident to the police. Conservatives have correctly pointed out that, in his autobiography, Jennings said the student was 15 at the time of their conversation, which would have made the sexual encounter the boy described illegal. But the student has since come forward with his driver's license to prove that he was 16, thus of consenting age. Still, Jennings, a leader in the LGBT civil rights movement and now the head of the Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, has issued a statement in which he notes, "I should have asked for more information and consulted legal or medical authorities. Teachers back then had little training or guidance about this kind of thing. All teachers should have a basic level of preparedness."
One could argue that Jennings should have done more to protect the student, by asking him more questions, calling the police, involving his school's administration, or even telling the student to discuss the health risks of unprotected sex with a doctor. But linking Jennings with Polanski is nothing short of ridiculous. Polanski raped a child; Jennings offered a student support, albeit perhaps not enough. Yet these facts aren't stopping the Heritage Foundation, which published a short article earlier this month entitled "How Much Sexual Assault Will Be Tolerated?" In it, Heritage chastised Jennings and compared the Obama administration to Polanski’s Hollywood apologists:
This week, we saw scores of Hollywood liberals rushing to the defense of Roman Polanski. … But this all just a case of Hollywood being Hollywood, right? They have looser morals in la-la land, and here in reality, the sexual assault of teenagers is not acceptable, right? Nope. A senior official in the Obama administration responsible for child safety has been exposed to have ignored child sex abuse when he was a high school teacher, and yet retains the confidence of the Secretary of Education.
And the ludicrousness of the non-connection isn't stopping Ann Coulter. In a recent segment with Sean Hannity, she jumped on the fact that Fox’s old favorite target, Bill Ayers, has a blurb on the back of a book (about what schools can do to teach young students about diversity and gender identities) for which Jennings wrote a foreword:
You have all of Hollywood and media elites defending Roman Polanski for anally raping a 13-year-old. And now you have this guy who's written the introduction to Queering Elementary Education. I mean that is the issue here, and you mentioned Bill Ayers. … I do have a solution for Obama that can kill two birds with one stone. He can move Kevin Jennings out and put Roman Polanski in this position, which would satisfy the Hollywood left, and I think he could even move Kevin Jennings into that green job "czar" position. Isn't that open now?
Politico already handed conservatives a talking point when it ran a bizarre article, for which it was appropriately criticized and mocked, on how much money Polanski's supporters donated to Obama and the DNC in 2008--even though the administration has exactly nothing to do with the Polanski debacle. Tossing Jennings into that frenzy makes it all the more dispiriting. Per their preferred method of attacks, the conservatives up in arms over his federal appointment are merely choosing buzzwords--gay! Hollywood! liberal! loose morals!--and mixing two unrelated news stories into one baseless smear.