Kevin Jennings ’85: Leading the Way for Gay Rights

Now at the U.S. Department of Education, the LGBT activist had a passion for French history

Courtesy of US Dept of Education

In September 1981, Kevin Jennings ’85 sat on Tercentenary Theatre, listening to his freshman dean welcome his class to the College.

Jennings said he remembers that the dean made a joke: “Look to your left. Now look to your right,” the dean told the new freshmen. “One of the three of you won’t make it to graduation.”

But Jennings did not think it was very funny.

“I was terrified,” Jennings said. “I knew I was going to be the one who wouldn’t make it to the end.”

Jennings subsequently decided to accept sophomore standing as a freshman.


“I thought, ‘I better get out of here as fast as possible before they realize I don’t belong,’” he said.

Jennings’ anxieties were compounded by the fact that he was openly gay at Harvard, during a time when the University lent virtually no support to LGBT students.

Despite Jennings’s worries as a freshman, by the time he graduated in 1985, he had been elected by his peers to deliver the Harvard Oration at commencement.

After graduating, Jennings established the first Gay-Straight Alliance in the country as a teacher at Concord Academy. He also founded the Gay and Lesbian Education Network, and has written several books on LGBT education.

Today, Jennings serves as the Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education. And most recently, he was elected by his class to be Chief Marshal at the 25th reunion this spring.

Jennings said that his difficult childhood and a challenging experience at Harvard shaped the way he thinks about education—and how he believes Harvard can make progress in the future.


Jennings grew up in trailer parks in rural North Carolina. Neither of his parents had completed high school, and no one in his family had attended college.

After Jennings’ father died when he was young, Jennings’ mother resorted to cleaning houses and working at a local McDonald’s to support their family.

Open about his sexual orientation, Jennings said he was additionally challenged by the “huge disadvantages to growing up as a gay fundamentalist.”