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Safe Schools Czar: Manhood is Making Our Schools Unsafe

Morgen on October 11, 2009 at 1:06 pm

[Okay, I hate to do it but I've changed the headline. Originally it read: "Killing Someone Who Calls You a Faggot is not Aberrant Behavior..." Unfortunately, this led to some confusion about what we were claiming. As you can see if you read the post below, we were not suggesting that Jennings condones murder for gay slurs. It was always about his understanding of the teaching of gender roles in schools, something over which he now has some actual say as the safe schools czar.]

Here’s the full quote from Kevin Jennings in 1998:

We need to own up to the fact that our culture teaches boys that being “a man” is the most important thing in life, even if you have to kill someone to prove it. Killing someone who calls you a faggot is not aberrant behavior but merely the most extreme expression of a belief that is beaten (sometimes literally) into boys at an early age in this country: Be a man – don’t be a faggot.

As Suzanne Pharr so eloquently explained in her landmark work Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, antigay bigotry is inextricably intertwined with the maintenance of “proper” gender roles by which little girls are supposed to be “sugar and spice and everything nice” and boys are supposed to be, well, quite the opposite. When boys take up guns to kill those who torment them with words like “faggot,” we shouldn’t be surprised. They’re just doing what we have taught them to do.

You can read the entire article here - it was originally published in the Advocate in 1998. Jennings wrote this in response to a series of school shootings where, he claims, homophobic harassment was a prime motivator for the violence. But don’t be confused by this – the three “victims” of this harassment were actually the perpetrators of the crimes, which included the murder of seven students and teachers.

And so what’s even more outrageous than the statements above is that Jennings’ sympathies seem to be with the young men who shot and murdered their fellow students. Because they were “just doing what we have taught them to do” in response to being called a “faggot”.

Now look, I think harassment and bullying is a real problem, and schools should aggressively enforce a no tolerance policy with this sort of thing. And cases like these cited by Jennings are real tragedies.

But to suggest that this sort of violence is a direct consequence of the teaching of traditional gender roles in society is just completely outrageous. Even assuming Jennings has the facts right in these cases, how many kids around the country are taunted every year with terms such as “faggot”, or worse, without responding with this level of violence? Whatever that number is, I’d wager that there is an even greater number of children who have been taught traditional gender roles and yet have never directed a gay slur at someone in their life.

I honestly can think of no reasonable explanation for statements such as these from Jennings. And I don’t think he should be given a pass because they were from 10 years ago. Comments like these suggest the existence of beliefs on his part that are just way, way outside the norm of mainstream America.

As a nation, there is still much to be done to reduce the incidence of harassment and violence in our schools. And this includes the teaching of greater sensitivity and tolerance towards minorities of all types. But given his radical views on education, and his intolerance for traditional American values, Kevin Jennings is not the right person to lead this effort.

John Adds: Jennings seems fixated on school shootings (something I could be accused of as well), but his analysis in this piece for the Huffington Post, written in the wake of the Tech massacre, is subtly different:

Obviously young men like Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, and Cho Seung-Hui who perpetrate tragedies like Columbine and Virginia Tech are deeply troubled individuals. Most students who get bullied don’t go berserk and gun down their classmates.

Jennings is right that bullying was a factor in Cho’s case (though it’s not as clear in the Columbine case); however, he stops his analysis there. Bullying is explanation enough. If we stop bullying we stop school shootings. That’s his argument circa 2007.

Yet in the earlier piece, the one quoted in Morgen’s post above, Jennings goes a step beyond mere bullying and identifies a specific cultural message which — having been “beaten” into the shooters — is at fault, i.e. be a man. Bullying is a trigger, but be a man is the real locus of control.

If one believes this, and I’ve no reason to doubt that Jennings does, then safer schools necessarily means schools in which boys are inculcated with alternative understandings of what it means to be a man. And that, it seems to me, goes beyond lessons on tolerance to something more fundamental. At the least, it seems like something the nation as a whole might want to discuss in light of Jenning’s current position.

Obama’s embattled safe-schools czar isn’t about to announce in public that eliminating or redefining traditional notions of manhood is the key to safer schools, but based on his earlier writings it seems reasonable to conclude that’s what he believes.

Update (John): Gay Patriot has an excellent post on this chock full of Greek myth (yes really). You should really go over and read all of it, but I’ll excerpt this one bit:

To become a man and realize his destiny, a hero must learn to restrain his battle fury, channeling it into just causes.  And that is the essence of Western masculinity.  A frenzied reaction (like that of Achilles before Athena’s intervention is the antithesis of the Western ideal.)

I only wish I’d said it.

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