Reviewed by Jim Van Buskirk
Kevin Jennings, best known as the founder and executive director of GLSEN (Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network), is also a prolific author and editor, and a committed activist. Contrary to what one might assume, this hasn't always been so. Jennings masterfully recounts his difficult journey in Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son.
Learning the stories behind the public personas of our heroes can be a powerful influence on our own life challenges. Think of Betty Berzon's poignant recounting of having been a psychiatric patient on suicide watch in a locked mental hospital (Surviving Madness) before becoming a pioneering activist/therapist/writer; trailblazing lesbian historian Lillian Faderman's career as a nude pinup model and burlesque stripper while a college student (Naked in the Promised Land); charismatic Broadway actor Martin Moran's complicated teenage relationship with an older man (The Tricky Part); and Paul Monette's journey from closeted novelist to self-accepting memoirist and poet (Becoming A Man). Now Kevin Jennings' memoir joins the ranks of these award-winning queer titles.
Mama's Boy begins and ends in a hospital. "The first thing I remember is the oxygen tent," Jennings states in the prologue's first sentence. It is 1966, and Kevin is 3 1/2 years old, battling desperately for his life. Despite the fact that he was not a wanted child (as his mother Alice repeatedly told him), she is constantly at his bedside. "She prays and she feeds me and she doesn't sleep and-backed by her iron will--I don't quit (she won't let me quit)." This was the first of many life lessons from the diminutive, Appalachian-born woman who never made it past the sixth grade.
His father, a handsome, athletic "Yankee" from Massachusetts, decided to become a fundamentalist preacher, after being introduced to Jesus by Alice's brother. Living in a series of trailer parks as his itinerant parents pursued work, Jennings was introverted and overweight. Called "sissy" and "faggot," the target of spitballs and other bullying, Jennings was unsupported by adults at his school. From his early love of learning instilled by his mother, Jennings sought salvation in books. By age six little Kevin "had figured out that the world was unfair, that death and damnation loomed at every turn, and that God was more intent on punishment than mercy. I had a profound sense that disaster was always about to strike, and that we were powerless to stop it from destroying our lives. The world was a bad place, where bad things happened, like they did to the sinners in darkest Africa, like they did to babies who never got to accept Jesus. It was only a matter of time before our turn came."
He didn't have long to wait. On his 8th birthday, Kevin asked his father to take him and his brothers swimming at the Y. In the midst of a back flip, his 47-year old father had a heart attack, had another one in the hospital, and died shortly thereafter. "Although Dad was now gone, I still had a Father above. The teachings of the Southern Baptist Church shaped my understanding of the world as a child." When his oldest brother Alan married Claudette, an African American woman, the family's shame was palpable. Meeting Claudette, Kevin realized that everything he'd been taught about Blacks was untrue, and began to rethink society's other inequities. His relationship with his sister-in-law became so profoundly important that the book is dedicated to her.
A scholarship to Harvard was followed by teaching at high schools where Jennings, initially closeted, finally found his true calling: fighting homophobia in education in its myriad forms. The story of his poor, bigoted, uneducated mother ("who held the Guinness Book world record for stubbornness") who became an activist in her own right is an inspiration for Jennings and, in turn, for the reader. By the time the narrative returns to another North Carolina hospital, this time where chain-smoking Alice is dying of emphysema, we have learned not to take anything we think we know at face value.
After reading Jennings' riveting story, the trajectory of his previous books bears retracing. The author of Becoming Visible: A Reader in Gay & Lesbian History for High School & College Students, editor of Telling Tales Out of School and One Teacher in Ten (1996,2005), and co-author of Always My Child: A Parent's Guide to Understanding Your Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered or Questioning Son or Daughter, Jennings has long been one of the country's most influential advocates for queer students and educators. In recounting how he overcame personal adversity, he assumes his rightful place as one of America's heroes.
Originally published in Lambda Book Report, Spring 2006, Vol. 14:1