KENT — Oscar Wilde once said, “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”
Disobedience fueled social progress in the form of the peaceful 1960s demonstrations of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the at-the-time-illegal WWII rescue of Jews from Nazi Germany. It has also fueled the longtime gay liberation movement, said historian and educator Kevin Jennings about his upcoming lecture.
“My whole career has been to appreciate The Other,” Jennings said in a Feb. 2 interview, adding, “In the talk we cover five centuries of history, or what I like to call 500 years of Queers.”
Jennings will present a talk entitled “The History of LGBTQ People,” which comprises significant events in gay history ranging from the Native American two-spirit tradition to the era of marriage equality. The free presentation, put on by the Kent Memorial Library, will be held at the Kent Town Hall, 41 Kent Green Boulevard in Kent on Saturday, Feb. 23, from 2 to 4 p.m.
For decades Jennings has fought for lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer rights in various forms. The fight flavors his current position as president of the Tenement Museum of New York City in the Lower East Side in Manhattan. “I am troubled by the national discourse on immigration,” he said. “It is ugly, ignorant, and prejudiced. It reminded me of the discourse that people had with regard to gay people.”
Kent Memorial Library’s Marketing and Special Events Director Lucy Pierpont invited Jennings to speak at the library. “I met Kevin briefly last year in connection with a Connecticut Community Foundation LGBTQ fundraising event,” Pierpont stated. “When I found out that he is an important component to the LGBTQ community and that he presents programs about the subject, I jumped at the chance to invite him to Kent.”
Pierpont added, “I was moved by his book ‘Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son: A Memoir of Growing Up, Coming Out, and Changing America’s Schools.’ I look forward to his presentation. He has made a big difference with many teens who struggle with gender and sexual issues.”
Jennings’ “Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son” is an acclaimed 2007 memoir that details his childhood in an impoverished religious Southern family and his harassment in school for being gay. It also details his later quest for safe schools as part of a progressive agenda in U.S. education.
“I talk about my experience of growing up in North Carolina,” Jennings explained, adding that the book was also inspired by bullying that he witnessed in schools as an educator.
Accomplishing more in his career in a few years, than many people do in their lifetimes, and in the name of social progress as a bonus, Jennings, 55, has either led or started several national organizations (including then-President Obama’s Assistant Deputy Secretary for Safe & Drug-Free Schools), authored seven novels, produced two documentaries, founded countless nationwide organizations, and enacted significant legislation and precedents. Jennings alternates his time between Manhattan and Southbury, Connecticut.
In 1988 Jennings created the first high school-based Gay-Straight Alliance club, and then, for 18 years after, the nationwide Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, expanding from one club in 1988 to more than 6,500 nationwide. True to his historical roots, in 1994 Jennings was part of inaugurating the annual LGBTQ History Month. The same year he published the first book on the subject for young people, “Becoming Visible.” The text has become required reading for gay and lesbian history studies for high school and college students.
Of the book’s origins, Jennings said, “To tell you the truth, I wanted people to teach LGBTQ history but teachers told me they didn’t know about it. So I said, ‘I will write you a book.’”
Jennings’ activism is not limited to books. In 1997 Jennings wrote and produced the documentary on LGBTQ history for young people called “Out of the Past,” which won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for Best Documentary. In 2017 he executive-produced “The Lavender Scare,” a documentary detailing the 1950s witch hunts of gay federal employees.
The talk, which incorporates slides and videos, has a starting point in the U.S. when Native Americans were the predominant population. “Two-spirited” was a term ascribed to some indigenous North Americans to describe certain people in their communities who fulfilled a traditional “third-gender” ceremonial role in their cultures. Roles in tribes traditionally taken by two-spirit people include performing sacred work and wearing clothing associated with both genders.
“The two-spirited people were comparable to transgender,” Jennings said. “They were esteemed by Native American culture and viewed as having special status.”
Jennings said such ceremonies, among others, were stopped by the arrival of white settlers from Europe. “The newcomer to the North American continent was homophobia,” Jennings stated, adding, “There has always been an LGBTQ population on the North American continent but not discrimination under the European settlers.”
One important historical concept that Jennings explores in his talk is that of “presentism.” The concept is the anachronistic use of present-day perspectives to interpret past events. “People assume from the present that things have always been that way,” Jennings said. “I wish to dispel the notion that the past was for white people the same as it is now. LGBTQ people were revered. In the talk I walk people through before and after the arrival of white settlers and the development of the gay community in the 1800s. In the 1900s there is the first organized movement.”
After obtaining college degrees from Harvard and Columbia Universities, but prior to working at the Tenement Museum, Jennings worked as Executive Director of the Arcus Foundation, a leading international funder of LGBTQ human rights work.
Ever the historian, Jennings said that the first modern gay movement started about 100 years ago. He said, “Before the Stonewall movement, before that leading up to marriage equality, in 1924 Henry Gerber started the Society for Human Rights in Chicago.”
A German immigrant, Gerber founded the nation’s first known and short-lived gay rights organization, as well as the first gay publication “Friendship and Freedom.”
“This group was copying the first gay movement in the late 1800s Germany,” Jennings said. “That was, until the Nazis wiped it out.” Jennings referred to the rise of the post-World War I white-supremacist fascism that exterminated Jews and minorities such as gay people in Germany and much of Europe.
During the talk, Jennings said he also discusses a landmark case for gay rights, a 1958 Supreme Court victory. One, Inc. v. Olesen was the first U.S. Supreme Court ruling to deal with both the topic of homosexuality and the free speech rights dealing with homosexuality. “The gay magazine sued the U.S. Postal Service and won for the right to be mailed,” Jennings said. The Postal Service had originally denied the mailings, citing the materials as obscene.
Prior to ending on the landmark cases of the 1990s and 2000s that resulted in the current marriage equality, Jennings discusses the landmark Stonewall Riots. The riots were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the gay community against a police raid that started in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The two-day event is considered the most important event leading to the gay liberation movement in the U.S.
“Stonewall was a turning point in LGBT history that helped catalyze a new mindset toward activism,” Jennings said, adding, “There are two schools of thought. One is assimilationist, with the aim of showing we are just like other people. The second is liberationist, which deconstructs systems that oppress. The Stonewall Riots marked the ascendancy of the liberationist wing. There was more rapid progress than before.”
He said with the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, “we can’t overestimate the importance of the event on the movement.”
“There are two laws of gay history,” he explained. “One is the more visible, the more you will be attacked. The second, with more attacks, people will fight back. Periods of extreme visibility with marriage equality are seeing a backlash. History shows this pattern. History is not linear nor one long, unbroken line of progress. It is two steps forward and one step back.”
“I am trying to show the depth of history,” added Jennings, who said the 45-minute talk and discussion afterward is intended for junior high school ages on upward.
“The History of LGBTQ People” presentation is free and open to the public. The event will be held at the Kent Town Hall, 41 Kent Green Boulevard in Kent on Saturday, Feb. 23, from 2 to 4 p.m. To register or for more information, please call the Library at 860-927-3761; e-mail email@example.com; stop by the Library; or visit the Library’s online calendar at www.kentmemoriallibrary.org.