He ran one of the top groups fighting gay-bashing, so when the conservative media started hounding Kevin Jennings, President Obama's pick to lead the Education Department's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools last year, Jennings knew he couldn't cave in. "As the leading proponent of stopping bullying in America, I was not allowed to be bullied out of my job," said Jennings, founder of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. "I've been preaching for 25 years that bullying is not OK. There was no way I could then say, 'OK, you can bully me.' "
Picked for the job in spring of 2009, the openly gay Jennings walked into a firestorm over what some in the conservative press, notably Fox's Sean Hannity and the Washington Times, saw as an Obama move to inject a gay agenda into schools. Obama's critics had attacked former controversial environmental aide, Van Jones, and were vying for a second liberal trophy. They failed.
Up to now, Jennings has been quiet about the fight over his job. But this month, speaking to interns from progressive groups at a lunch hosted by the liberal Alliance for Justice, Jennings used his experience to encourage young people to fight for change. "The only things you'll regret are things you don't do," Jennings told the luncheon guests. "At the peak of the attacks on me last fall, when I had Federal Protective Service in my office because there had been so many death threats, I thought, 'This is the right thing to do?' All I could think is, no matter how this ends, it's better than sitting at home wondering, 'Gosh, I wonder what it would have been like to be part of the Obama administration?' "
Ignore the critics, he urged, even if it hurts. "Get into the arena. You won't win every time. You may find yourself like me with 1.1 million Google hits, most of which are negative, thanks to the Fox News Network."
What disturbed Jennings most was how his past was distorted in the media. "To watch people tell things that you know were lies was just utterly shocking to me," said Jennings, the son of an evangelical minister. "And they claim to be Christians. Interesting. Must have grown up in a different church than I."
It wasn't personal. "This was never about me," he said. "They were just trying to get to the president."
Asked about his run-in with conservative media critics, Jennings said, "They can only lie for so long. In the end, Americans are a hopeful people. They're selling fear; we're selling hope, in case you didn't notice our slogan in the 2008 election."