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Kevin Jennings, “Brewster,” and the Closet

Jim Burroway

October 3rd, 2009

(I’ve been extremely busy with work lately, which is why I haven’t been able to comment on this extremely important story. My apologies for my tardiness.)

Numerous anti-gay web sites have been hyperventilating about the appointment of Kevin Jennings, the former Executive Director for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), to be the Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education. The loudest cries have centered on a story that Jennings has told many times in many forms, about an incident that happened when he was just starting out as a schoolteacher. There are several versions of the story floating around, but the one that anti-gay activists have fixated on goes like this:

And in my second job I wasn’t sure how I wanted to deal with that. And I was in my first month on the job and I had an advisee named Brewster. Brewster was missing a lot of classes; he was in the boarding school so I said to his teacher, his first period teacher, I said, “next time Brewster misses a class I want you to tell me that he’s missed that class and, uh, I will go find him.”

So I went and found Brewster one morning when she had called and he was asleep in his dorm room. 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 someone 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. I knew I should say something quickly so I finally said, 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.”

For most people, this story, taking place as it did in the late 1980s, would be about how critical it is for LGBT students to have someone they know they can turn to in safety and confidence. It is also a story that illustrates how a young man can be made so desperate coming of age in a culture that condemns everything about him. But for some, this was a story has become about an underage fifteen-year-old student having sex with an adult, and Jennings’ failure to report this “statutory rape” or “molestation” to authorities.

The problem with this story, like many stories in which the storyteller wishes to protect someone’s anonymity, is that many minor details end up being altered to ensure that the people in the story can’t be identified. And sometimes these alterations change with different tellings. Typically, you try to alter details which are immaterial to the purpose of the story (the student’s name, for example). Unfortunately, some of these alterations can be interpreted by some in ways which turn out to be materially important, but in ways that the storyteller may not have anticipated (like Brewster’s age). That appears to be what happened here.

In Jennings 2006 memoir Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son Brewster appears to be a boy name Robertson. In an essay Jennings wrote for Mitchell Gold’s Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America, the boy’s name is Thompson. His name is unimportant, and clearly we have a case where Jennings is changing the student’s name in different tellings in order to hid his identity.

But it turns out that this detail about his age has ended up being important to those who want to use this story for a different purpose than Jennings intended. Sixteen is the age of consent for Massachusetts, although state law provides an exception of the two are close in age. In this version of the story I just cited, Jennings gave the student’s age as fifteen, but we don’t know the age of that “someone” at the bus station (who is assumed to be an adult).

But it appears that the student’s age might have been one of those details that Jennings was changing to protect the student’s identity. In most versions of the story, the student is simply identified as a sophomore and his age is not given. In other versions, and particularly in an important 2004 clarification by Jennings’ lawyer (PDF: 927KB/2 pages) when his issue first arose, the student’s age was given as sixteen. Furthermore, the story was clarified to indicate that Jennings had little information to believe that the student was actually having sex with an older man.

Now neither the student’s name nor his age were important elements to the story in terms of what that story was meant to illustrate (the importance of LGBT students having someone they can trust to turn to, the need for teachers to be able to deal with the special needs of LGBT students — more on that later). But one of those unimportant elements suddenly became vitally important for those who sought to take this story outside of its context.

Which is exactly what right-wing media has done. Fox News and The Washington Times have latched onto just one particular version of the story, the fifteen-year-old-Brewster version, as though it were gospel, while ignoring all the other versions including his 2004 clarification. And they ignored both its context and what seems to me a rather obvious attempt to hide the student’s identity by changing some of the details.

Fortunately, Media Matters for America has been able to track down “Brewster” and they obtained an image of his drivers license. That I.D. shows his birth date as July 31, 1971. Since the conversation took place in the fall of 1987, this would have made “Brewster” sixteen at the time and a legal adult. But more relevant than all that is this: a statement by “Brewster” himself:

Since I was of legal consent at the time, the fifteen-minute conversation I had with Mr. Jennings twenty-one years ago is of nobody’s concern but his and mine. However, since the Republican noise machine is so concerned about my “well-being” and that of America’s students, they’ll be relieved to know that I was not “inducted” into homosexuality, assaulted, raped, or sold into sexual slavery.

In 1988, I had taken a bus home for the weekend, and on the return trip met someone who was also gay. The next day, I had a conversation with Mr. Jennings about it. I had no sexual contact with anybody at the time, though I was entirely legally free to do so. I was a sixteen year-old going through something most of us have experienced: adolescence. I find it regrettable that the people who have the compassion and integrity to protect our nation’s students are themselves in need of protection from homophobic smear attacks. Were it not for Mr. Jennings’ courage and concern for my well-being at that time in my life, I doubt I’d be the proud gay man that I am today.

As they say, all’s well that ends well, but that doesn’t put this issue entirely to rest. There is still the matter of the particular advice that Jennings tossed off — “I hope you knew to use a condom.”

I think we can agree that this closeted, 24-year-old teacher’s advice was abysmal. “Brewster” really needed — and should have gotten — much better advice than that. I think we can all compose a large list of topics that they should have discussed.

That closeted teacher handled that situation very badly, but that shouldn’t have been surprising. Closeted people rarely handle situations touching on sexuality very well. I should know. I was closeted for the first forty years of my life, and in those years I said and did things that I am not at all proud of, things that I would never dream of doing today. The closet is a very insidious situation to be in.

And if people had paid attention to all of the versions of this story, they would have noticed that this was one of the principle lessons behind Jennings’ story. He screwed up and gave lousy advice, an admission he reinforced in a recent statement:

Twenty-one years later I can see how I should have handled the situation differently. I should have asked for more information and consulted legal or medical authorities. Teachers back then had little training and guidance about this kind of thing.

I think it’s important to know that “this kind of thing” isn’t just general information about sexual conduct among students which many teachers were trained on, but the particularly unique situations that LGBT students were in during that time. The year 1987 was at the very height of the AIDS crisis, and all of the hysterial that accompanied it. Politicians and popular pundits alike thought nothing about advocating that people with AIDS should be rounded up and quarantined. Homes of children with AIDS were being firebombed in Florida and people were regularly shunned everywhere else. Couple that with the presumption that everyone who was gay had AIDS (a presumption that persists in some quarters today), this placed an added stigma to everyone who was struggling to come to terms with their own sexuality.

And just to add to that, sodomy was a crime in Massachusetts in 1987, a “crime” that both the student and Jennings were potentially guilty of regardless of age of consent laws.This fact was very much on the minds of all LGBT people, especially closeted ones. I remember well in the late 1980s that Texas’ sodomy law was cited by the Dallas police department as justification for their ban on hiring LGBT officers. I remember that because I held a security clearance at the time, and worried about how that might affect my job. I needn’t have worried; by then sexual orientation wasn’t much of a factor in granting security clearances, but I didn’t know that. I wasn’t willing to take the risk of asking. One cannot discount the fears that these conditions placed on all LGBT people at that time, especially those in the closet. No wonder “Brewster” thought his life wasn’t worth saving.

When I was in high school, there was absolutely not one person I could trust to talk about what I was going through at that time — not one teacher, guidance counselor, or any other trustworthy adult. The climate was simply too hostile. And to demonstrate the depth of my sense of isolation, let me tell you a story where I’ll have to change someone’s name (but nothing else).

A good friend of mine in high school who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia was sent to see a psychiatrist because of his behavioral problems. That psychiatrist, noting that Will had not had any girlfriends yet (and is that any wonder, given the nature of his illness?) concluded that his problem was latent homosexuality. That psychiatrist then embarked on the blame-the-parents-based therapies that were popular at that time in order to try to cure him — even though by then, homosexuality was not considered a mental disorder. Not surprisingly, that course of treatment was futile because the diagnosis was completely wrong. Will isn’t gay and he never was. But I saw the disruptive effect that response had on his family, and I saw that Will only got worse when it was all said and done.

So not only could I not trust any teachers, but I knew I couldn’t even trust the so-called “experts.” For that day and time, I don’t think my situation was all that unique.

Which is why, as bad as Jennings’ advice was, I still think “Brewster” was lucky. The bad advice he got was far better than the alternative that he was likely to get from anyone else at that time. Better still, Jennings himself later came out of the closet and and founded GLSEN, and he has dedicated the rest of his career to making sure teachers today are better able to work with the “Brewsters” of the world. As hostile as this climate still is, LGBT students are better off in more schools today than we ever thought they would be two decades ago. And much of it began because of some bad advice given by a frightened, closeted teacher twenty-two years ago.

Comments

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Steve
October 3rd, 2009 | LINK

Alvin has noted that today’s new anti-Jennings attack is focused on his statement of respect for Harry Hay as an lgbt pioneer in the late 1940s.

I am frustrated with the right’s willingness to exploit children and youth while refusing to acknowledge the existence of and the needs of lgbt youth and families.

Christopher Waldrop
October 3rd, 2009 | LINK

One thing I would say is that Jennings did not give the young man “lousy advice”. While it may not have been the best advice, and while I agree there are a lot of other things he probably should have said instead, I think you make a strong case for why Jennings could have been putting his job, if not much more, in jeopardy. He took an enormous risk offering any kind of advice to “Brewster” at all.

Burr
October 3rd, 2009 | LINK

Considering the guy is alive and happy I’d say the advice did its job. Of course you would have liked to see a little admonishment about his behavior, but he would have been stretching his neck to do too much more, especially going to authorities about it, which probably would have caused more harm to the kid.

David C.
October 3rd, 2009 | LINK

I am frustrated with the right’s willingness to exploit children and youth while refusing to acknowledge the existence of and the needs of lgbt youth and families.—Steve,

No anti-gay interest group or individual will do anything that even remotely signals a willingness to normalize homosexuality. Such groups and individuals will twist the truth, ignore reason, and distort science to avoid doing anything that would even remotely suggest that LGBT* people are normal, healthy, valuable, and important contributors to society. This is because doing so would instantly invalidate the very reason for being the bigots such anti-gay groups and individuals are.

Jim Burroway
October 3rd, 2009 | LINK

If we were to compose that list of topics Jennings should have discussed, I’m not sure admonishment would be on mine. Not exactly anyway. I do think though that warning about the dangers of what Brewster was opening himself up to would have covered that concern.

My list would also include exploring Brewster’s statement about his life not being worth saving. I think that would have been at the top of the list. Not necessarily because Brewster was suicidal (although that needed to be ruled out), but because it indicated a serious problem that Brewster was struggling with: What did he deserve for being gay? Unfortunately, most closeted men aren’t in much of a position to offer self-affirming alternatives since closeted men themselves tend not to be so self-affirming.

Dan
October 3rd, 2009 | LINK

Like most people, the only version of this story that I heard was the one described on TV.

Jennings did the right thing! Even the advice was right. The only thing that was missing was additional follow ups to cover other issues such as self-esteem, etc.

The left better be hitting back on this! If he quits the Obama administration because of this, then Hannity, O’Reilley and the other crazies win!

Richard W. Fitch
October 3rd, 2009 | LINK

My immediate reaction to Dan’s comment is: If every public figure were judged only on their faults, our nation would be in very sad shape. First one comes to mind is Ted Kennedy. He certainly had many issues which by themselves were very damaging, but even the things the general public knew helped balance that out. The many very private and personal acts of compassion and generosity that others shared at his death make his legacy even more substantial. Kevin Jennings was young, closeted and in a profession that in that time did not lend itself to being friendly to a gay man. He did the best he knew for then. His dedication to LGBT your through the founding of GLSEN must vindicate whatever may be seen as earlier failings.

Lynn David
October 4th, 2009 | LINK

Those of us who are Jennings age more or less grew up with a lot of baggage, doubt and some fear. That we should attempt to lighten that load on the next generations of gay youth, but not at first be fully prepared to do so, is I believe understandable. To acknowledge those shortcomings as Jennings has done is commendable but does not disqualify him. If one cannot learn from our mistakes, then what human would ever be qualified?

lurker
October 4th, 2009 | LINK

looking at Jennings’ text (out of context, of course) it seems that his *intent* in recounting this story is not to glorify his actions (e.g.,”look at what sage words I gave this struggling youth”). In fact in the retelling he prefaces his response with a bit of an excuse about why the response was poor. I’d think differently about Jennings if he had held up his response as wholly admirable in retrospect.

No, it seems that the POINT of the story is that this isolated young man felt that his life was not worth living, and part of that was due to his isolation due to being gay.

Timothy Kincaid
October 4th, 2009 | LINK

I see the story as an allegory. A tale that was based roughly on a fact, but which evolved to meet a rhetorical need.

The Brewster story is one of epiphany, the point at which Jennings came face to face with his own inadequacies to address the situation and the realization that no one else was doing anything for the Brewsters of the world.

His tale is not one of appropriate response, but rather one of highlighting a need for change. And Jennings did change, and in doing so he changed the world for thousands of other Brewsters out there.

Steve
October 4th, 2009 | LINK

No anti-gay interest group or individual will do anything that even remotely signals a willingness to normalize homosexuality.
—David C.

Hey David… I’m not entirely convinced.

It seems to me that the anti-gay folks have had to reframe their rhetoric, giving up on attempts to re-criminalize sex and at least giving lip service like NOM’s #1 talking point starting with Gays and Lesbians have a right to live as they choose.

For many, it may be more cynical than authentic — their pollsters and message-crafters tell them it’s necessary to win support.

But, it’s a start. And, to the extent that general awareness grows about how anti-gay rhetoric exploits and harms kids, I’m convinced they’ll have to back off.

David C.
October 4th, 2009 | LINK

But, it’s a start. And, to the extent that general awareness grows about how anti-gay rhetoric exploits and harms kids, I’m convinced they’ll have to back off.—Steve

You make a good point though in my view these new tactics are just ploys to dodge mainstream criticism of messages that tend to cost NOM and other groups like it votes.

It should be abundantly clear that sunset is coming for NOM and all the other so-called “family” groups that have nothing to do with helping actual families. Children have been a convenient pick but even they are clearly being harmed by the likes of Gallagher et al and people are noticing.

The instant NOM, IFI, CWA and the rest are forced to acknowledge that being gay for some of us is perfectly normal and that LGBT* people can and do form and maintain healthy and productive families, at that moment those groups will cease to have any relevancy.

Christopher Waldrop
October 5th, 2009 | LINK

The instant NOM, IFI, CWA and the rest are forced to acknowledge that being gay for some of us is perfectly normal and that LGBT* people can and do form and maintain healthy and productive families, at that moment those groups will cease to have any relevancy.

That fits with something that occurred to me as I was thinking more about this story. Jennings was a teacher, and, whether or not his advice was good, he was apparently a dedicated teacher. He also happens to be gay. He also never had any charges of misconduct brought against him. For most of us that doesn’t come as a surprise, but NOM, IFI, CWA, and other groups with similar agendas can’t let it rest there. They have to have something to criticize, because the idea that someone can be a good teacher and also be gay is a threat to them. If he was a good teacher then Jennings undermines their baseless claim that homosexuals are inherently dangerous and a threat to society.

Richard Rush
October 5th, 2009 | LINK

The instant NOM, IFI, CWA and the rest are forced to acknowledge that being gay for some of us is perfectly normal and that LGBT* people can and do form and maintain healthy and productive families, at that moment those groups will cease to have any relevancy.

At that moment I expect those groups to begin the campaign to rehabilitate themselves and rewrite history. They will attempt to seize the credit for ending society’s persecution of gays while deflecting all responsibility for extending that persecution long beyond the time when it would have otherwise ended.

One of religion’s specialties seems to be the seizing of all credit for things deemed positive while deflecting any responsibility for things deemed negative.

Mark M.
October 7th, 2009 | LINK

I’m not so sure Jennings advice was off. Aside from the fact that the statement most in need of addressing is the one the story ends with (and therefore we don’t know what Jennings said next), part of what teachers do is develop rapore and trust with students.

Mentioning the condom was huge! Here was an adult to whom this boy just ‘confessed’ his actions, and the adult doesn’t flip out on him. Instead, having already established that KJ thinks the boy shouldn’t be out on school nights, he offers advice that says this is a medical / health issue, not a pathology.

Who’s Brewster going to turn to next time there’s an issue in his life? Not the teacher who goes ballistic, no, he’s going to go to the teacher who doled it out at the pace the boy could handle.

Bravo, Jennings. That’s the moment that made all the difference.

nm
December 14th, 2009 | LINK

Kevin Jennings founded GLSEN which publishes perverted overtly sexual books for kiddies..we are not fooled what Jennings agenda is….please…enough about saving poor Brewsters life…if Jennings gave a damn he would have warned the boy that picking up strangers in bathrooms – not a good idea…no that was ok, but put a condom on first… ridiculous! Jennings job is to promote homosexuality/lesbianism…not paying for that with our tax dollars…nice try!

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