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Going Back to School

By Eric Hunter · March 4th, 1999 · Gay & Lesbian Issues
Over the past few months, I have had several occasions to try to describe the political and social climates in Cincinnati to out-of-towners.

The best I have come up with so far is to say that Cincinnati is a very unique dichotomy. Politically, as most of you are well-aware, Cincinnati is extremely conservative. But, with some careful maneuvering, Cincinnati can be socially, dare I say it, almost tolerant.

Perhaps it is this duality, that makes a local activist's job difficult. The question in my mind for quite some time has been, how do we effectively inspire people to fight for equal rights when, despite a total lack of legal protection, many local gays and lesbians don't experience injustice in their daily lives?

Fortunately, when we feel like we are at the end of our ropes, we can look to people like Kevin Jennings for a fresh perspective. Jennings, the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, is coming to Cincinnati in April to speak at this year's Stonewall Dinner.

With 10 years as a history teacher and tenure with the network, Jennings has experienced homophobia in our schools on a firsthand basis. Lucky for us, instead of shying away from the conflict, Jennings dedicated more of his time to fighting for equal rights. His experience includes a stint as the faculty adviser to one of the first high school gay/straight alliances back in 1989 when the group first formed at Concord Academy.

"Students will live up to the expectations we set for them," Jennings told me when we spoke by telephone.

He went on to point out that we can break the cycle of hatred by teaching people to get along when they are young.

Jennings cites several alarming statistics. He reports that the average high school student will hear anti-gay remarks 25 times a day; 97 percent of the time teachers hearing these epithets fail to respond; 76 percent of our nation's schools fail to train teachers about issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth. And these youth are more than five times as likely than their straight peers to skip school because they feel unsafe at school.

I asked Jennings how this could be true in 1999. Gays and lesbians and our issues are more prevalent in today's society than ever before. Our lives are reflected in the media more and more every day. Gay and lesbian storylines and characters are even showing up on shows like Dawson's Creek and Felicity.

"Visibility is not an unmixed blessing," Jennings said. "With growing visibility, comes growing backlash."

He said the murder of Matthew Shepard is the most extreme example of this type of anti-gay violence. And while Jennings is horrified by what happened to Shepard, he said he wasn't surprised by it.

Fortunately, there are organizations like Gay, Lesbians and Straight Education Network and leaders like Jennings who are out there working to end homophobia and fighting for equal rights by building bridges between all communities. It turns out, Jennings said, that the network is the first national gay-rights organization to include straight in its name. And while cooperation among gay, lesbian and straight people is a founding principle of the network, it has taken the group years to build the level of teamwork the group now experiences among its gay and non-gay members.

The group now is at a point where a third of its board of directors is heterosexual, and heterosexuals hold other key leadership positions at all levels of the group.

Jennings said the network champions child welfare issues, which are something people of all sexual orientations can get behind.

"We are the first country in the world to institute public education in order to give every kid a chance," Jennings said. "As a teacher, I have a moral obligation to help every kid do well. I can't neglect certain kids simply because I don't like them."

Jennings is right on the money when he points out the irony in the level of homophobia in schools that are supposed to be the place young people go to learn to get along with everyone. Thankfully, Jennings' work is focused on the leaders of tomorrow whose attitudes are being changed by the growing number of openly gay friends, teachers and parents in their lives.

Jennings believes that we ought not look to the Clintons or Birches of the world to lead change because it is the teachers and students, or more generally the individuals, in places just like Cincinnati who are bringing about the most dramatic change, one-by-one.

So if your fighting spirit is waning lately, consider taking a night out in April to re-energize by supporting our local human rights organization, Stonewall Cincinnati, at the annual dinner and listen to Jennings, an inspiring teacher and leader. After all, teaching and learning are not confined to the traditional classroom. And we are all students of life.



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