Those of you who are tuned into either the queer press or the right-wing press might be aware of the right wing’s smear campaign against Obama’s nominee to be head of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, Kevin Jennings. To summarize briefly: Jennings is gay, he used to be head of GLSEN (which is a pro-safe schools, pro-GSA organization), and he’s written various things about the need to make public education more friendly to queer kids and to kids with queer parents—most famously, by now, the foreword to a book called Queering Elementary Education.
You know what this means, right? Yep, I bet you’re smart enough to put two and two together in right-wing-land: you can’t have the words “gay” and “school” in the same paragraph without invoking the specter of pedophilia. In their attacks against Jennings, the right-wing media have drawn absurdly untrue connections between Jennings and NAMBLA. They have criticized him for listening supportively to a closeted student who told Jennings that he’d had sex with a man he picked up in a bus station bathroom (the student was over the age of consent). Now, apparently, they’re criticizing him because he was involved in ACT-UP. And reader, that’s the last straw.
I know we’re not supposed to feed right-wing nonsense by reporting on it, and I know that I don’t need to tell you folks that Kevin Jennings is far better qualified to make our schools safer than any Bush administration appointee. I don’t need to tell you how nice it would have been to have an out gay teacher in high school, or the importance of students being able to confide in teachers, even if it’s about hooking up in bus stations. But when the right-wing press thinks they can get away with distorting the history I study so that they can erase queerfolk from public education, I’m sorry: I have to rant about it.
The Washington Times ran an editorial on Thursday (I’m not giving them the privilege of a link) which says, in the first paragraph, that Kevin Jennings is an inappropriate person to nominate to public office because he was a member of “the extremist homosexual organization ACT-UP.” It suggests that Jennings is too radical for the gay mainstream because he was in ACT-UP (which, as Alex at Bilerico points out, is just really stupid. ACT-UP was a dominant part of the gay community in the ’80s and early ’90s, and how could it not be? People were dying, and no one was paying attention). The editorial also draws a bizarre association between ACT-UP and NAMBLA, that surefire way to convince folks that all gay men are pedophiles. But this particular excerpt jumped out at me:
ACT UP fanatics invaded the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour studio in 1991 and chained themselves to Robert MacNeil’s desk during a live broadcast. Protesters carried signs declaring, “The AIDS Crisis is Not Over.”
Well, yeah. Because that’s true. It wasn’t over in 1991 and it’s not over now. And every time folks like the Washington Times pull something like this, it increases the burden on the rest of us to bear witness to the thousands of gay men who have died in the face of politicians and media figures trying desperately to use AIDS as proof of the immorality of homosexuality, getting some sort of high of self-righteousness out of human suffering. I want to say that I can’t believe that something which calls itself a news organization would have the temerity to criticize a political appointee for his work in the ’80s to stop people from dying, but frankly I’m not surprised. I’ve read enough about the ’80s themselves, and the reasons that ACT-UP formed in the first place, to know better.
The right-wing commentators have a habit of doing this, of distorting the righteous into something evil. It makes me so angry, and I find it very frustrating, because it draws attention away from what I should be doing as someone active in LGBT communities. It’s easy and satisfying to write a blog post like this one, or to bitch about Anscombe, or to get angry about the latest stupid thing Prof. George has said in the national political discourse (with regard to Kevin Jennings, he said, “Children don’t need to be learning about homosexual practices in elementary school.” And they gave this man tenure WHY? Evidence of reasoned thought this is not). But in the meantime, kids are still killing themselves because their school and home environments are so hostile and unsafe. In the meantime, you can be fired for being gay in thirty states; for being trans, in thirty-nine.
And, in the meantime, the Washington Times still think that pointing out that an Obama nominee was involved with ACT-UP is enough to scuttle the nomination. So let’s change hearts and minds, folks. Let’s educate and be here and queer so that America says to itself, “You know what? I’m proud of my president that he nominated someone who was involved with ACT-UP. I hope that, and the rest of Jennings’ past, means that he’ll be an unwavering advocate for queer children and the children of queer parents.” I mean, in a broad sense, that’s what ACT-UP was fighting for, right? The right to recognition and to legitimacy and to care.
I’m not sure how related this is, but this week, the president of the Anscombe Society was quoted in the Princeton alumni magazine as saying, rather hysterically, that advocates for gender-neutral housing want “to eliminate any gender-based considerations whatsoever, and legal embracing of all sexual lifestyles. It’s a piecemeal process, taking each bite out of traditional gender norms.”
Well, yeah. That’s the idea. Call me a radical, but I say, act up! Fight back! Civil rights—and recognition—now!