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Jennings, Kevin (b. 1963)  
 
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It has been said that one person can start a revolution and, in the case of Kevin Jennings, founder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), that has never been more profoundly true.

With courage born of anger, Jennings drew on his own experience with bullying and gay bashing throughout his school years, and transformed his passion for justice into founding the first national organization to address the lesson gay, lesbian, bisexual, and young people were hearing in schools: Hate yourself.

Sponsor Message.

For nearly twenty years, Jennings has campaigned all over the country to educate glbtq and straight teachers, parents, students, and community members about ending bias in the nation's K-12 schools. Although Jennings resigned as executive director of GLSEN in August 2008, his legacy will live as the chapters of GLSEN flourish throughout the United States.

Kevin Brett Jennings was born on May 8, 1963 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is the son of Chester Henry, a Baptist preacher, and Alice Verna (Johnson) Jennings. He is the youngest of five children; he has three brothers and a sister. Jennings was born seven years after his nearest sibling, at a time when his mother, at 38, was not anticipating another child.

When he was three years old, Jennings nearly died of whooping cough. Frightened of losing her youngest son, his mother became fiercely protective of him, and he acquired the name "Mama's Boy." As Jennings says, "I can't remember a time when that wasn't my name. So I guess there was never a time when I felt like I was a normal boy."

After attending a seminary in New Orleans, Jennings' father became an itinerant Baptist preacher, and the family moved all over the South as he attempted to find a permanent church. The family was dirt poor. His mother literally swept rattlesnakes out of the house at one posting in Alabama.

By the time Jennings was born, the family was in Florida, enmeshed in the activities of the Southern Baptist Church his father pastored: church on Sunday, prayer meetings on Wednesdays, revival meetings, choir practice, and church athletic leagues.

By Jennings' eighth birthday, the family was living in Lewisville, North Carolina in a trailer park. His father asked him how he wanted to celebrate his birthday. Always aspiring to be as athletic as his older brothers, Jennings said he wanted to go to the Y. After executing a complicated dive into the swimming pool, Jennings' father had a massive heart attack. He died later that day.

At his father's funeral, Jennings learned another life lesson when he began to cry after his mother fainted. One of his brothers said to him, "Don't cry. Be a man. Don't be a faggot." In addition to "Mama's Boy," Jennings now had another moniker that was to follow him throughout his early life.

After his father's death, Jennings' mother found a job at McDonald's to support her and her youngest son. Their economic situation became worse as each of the older boys moved away, taking their financial contribution with them. In addition to poverty, Jennings carried around an immense amount of guilt over his father's death because, after all, it had been his idea to go to the Y in the first place. His brothers would tell him repeatedly that it was his fault his father was dead.

Jennings regards the greatest tragedy of his mother's life her being forced to stop attending school when she was nine years old. She educated herself through reading and watching documentaries on television. During his early childhood, she shared her love of learning with her youngest son, taking him to see Civil War battlefields, watching nature films, and teaching him to love books and reading. Although his family was poor, Jennings' home life stood in stark contrast to what he was experiencing in school.

Because he was bullied constantly in school and called "sissy" and "faggot" all the time, he developed a dread of going to school. He experienced what he calls his "Sunday funny feeling," his name for the "fear-induced nausea" he felt at the prospect of going to school. He began to gain weight in middle school, prompting yet another unflattering nickname from his classmates, "Baloney Boy."

By the time he started junior high school, Jennings experienced abuse and bullying from not only his classmates, but also from his gym teacher whose treatment of Jennings only spurred his classmates to harass him more because the harassment was now "seemingly endorsed and blessed by a teacher."

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