Thursday, December 15, 2005

News & Observer Op-Ed: Kevin Jennings, Exec. Dir. of GLSEN and North Carolina native

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From the Raleigh News & Observer: He's out to protect students Ruth Sheehan, Staff Writer Dec 15, 2005 12:30 AM Last week, a Harris Interactive survey commissioned by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that teens in North Carolina thought bullying and harassment -- particularly because of real or perceived sexual orientation -- were significant problems in schools. More so here than in the nation overall. Kevin Jennings, 42, the founder and head of the group, isn't much surprised. He grew up here. And he's gay. Of course, in those days, nobody knew about his sexual orientation. Nobody was "out" -- not in middle school or high school. But Jennings, a devoted student who cared more about his books than such "guy" pursuits as sports, was perceived as gay -- rightly in his case. He was tormented because of it. By the time he was in middle school, Jennings had grown accustomed to the taunts. By high school, he'd given up eating in the school cafeteria. Instead, he sat on the floor in the hall to avoid shouts of "faggot" and "queer" and avoid having food thrown at him. The one time Jennings found the abuse unbearable and took his concerns to a guidance counselor, the counselor/coach told him something along the lines of: "Oh, I know those kids, and I know they wouldn't do anything like that." So much for institutional support. Jennings never complained again. When it came time to apply for college, all of Jennings' studying paid off. "I went from a trailer in a small town outside of Winston-Salem to Harvard," he said. "It was quite a switch." Later, working in Concord, N.H., as an openly gay teacher, Jennings was approached one day by a female student. She wanted his help in starting a group to end the harassment of gay students and students with gay relatives. (Her mother was lesbian.) Jennings told the girl he'd be happy to help. "What should we call it?"she asked. He replied: "Well, I'm gay, you're straight, let's call it the Gay-Straight Alliance." It was the first Gay-Straight Alliance in the country. Now, there are thousands. Jennings, who now lives in New York City, went on to found the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which works to make it possible for all students to learn in a safe, respectful environment. There are signs of progress. These days, gay students are more comfortable coming out -- in high school and even in middle school. But some things apparently do not change. The use of the term "gay" as a general put-down is still all too common. Nearly 80 percent of students hear it or use it, according to the study; ditto for anti-gay slurs. And according to the study, four in 10 North Carolina students who said they were harassed or assaulted at school did not report the incident. Those who did know why: Less than half reported that school staff took action to address the problem. To Jennings, the results of the study reaffirm his belief that harassment of gays is more prevalent in states and school systems where there is no specific policy against it. If the policy doesn't specifically cite sexual orientation, students know they can bully with impunity. They did when Jennings was a student. And they still do. Original source