Kevin Jennings, “Brewster,” and the Closet
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.