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Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son: A Memoir

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Growing up poor in the South, Kevin Jennings learned a lot of things, especially about how to be a real man. When his father, a fundamentalist preacher, dropped dead at his son's eighth birthday party, Kevin already knew he wasn't supposed to cry. He also knew there was no salvation for homosexuals, who weren't "real men"—or Christians, for that matter. But Jennings found h Growing up poor in the South, Kevin Jennings learned a lot of things, especially about how to be a real man. When his father, a fundamentalist preacher, dropped dead at his son's eighth birthday party, Kevin already knew he wasn't supposed to cry. He also knew there was no salvation for homosexuals, who weren't "real men"—or Christians, for that matter. But Jennings found his salvation in school, inspired by his mother. Self-taught, from Appalachia, her formal education had ended in sixth grade, but she was determined that her son would be the first member of their extended family to go to college, even if it meant going North. Kevin, propelled by her dream, found a world beyond poverty. He earned a scholarship to Harvard and there learned not only about history and literature, but also that it was possible to live openly as a gay man. But when Jennings discovered his vocation as a teacher and returned to high school to teach, he was forced back into the closet. He saw countless teachers and students struggling with their sexual orientation and desperately trying to hide their identity. For Jennings, coming out the second time was more complicated and much more important than the first—because this time he was leading a movement for justice. Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son is that rare memoir that is both a riveting personal story and an inside account of a critical chapter in our recent history. Creating safe schools for teenagers is now a central part of the progressive agenda in American education. Like Paul Monette's landmark Becoming a Man, Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, and Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin', Kevin Jennings's poignant, razor-sharp memoir will change the way we see our contemporary world.


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Growing up poor in the South, Kevin Jennings learned a lot of things, especially about how to be a real man. When his father, a fundamentalist preacher, dropped dead at his son's eighth birthday party, Kevin already knew he wasn't supposed to cry. He also knew there was no salvation for homosexuals, who weren't "real men"—or Christians, for that matter. But Jennings found h Growing up poor in the South, Kevin Jennings learned a lot of things, especially about how to be a real man. When his father, a fundamentalist preacher, dropped dead at his son's eighth birthday party, Kevin already knew he wasn't supposed to cry. He also knew there was no salvation for homosexuals, who weren't "real men"—or Christians, for that matter. But Jennings found his salvation in school, inspired by his mother. Self-taught, from Appalachia, her formal education had ended in sixth grade, but she was determined that her son would be the first member of their extended family to go to college, even if it meant going North. Kevin, propelled by her dream, found a world beyond poverty. He earned a scholarship to Harvard and there learned not only about history and literature, but also that it was possible to live openly as a gay man. But when Jennings discovered his vocation as a teacher and returned to high school to teach, he was forced back into the closet. He saw countless teachers and students struggling with their sexual orientation and desperately trying to hide their identity. For Jennings, coming out the second time was more complicated and much more important than the first—because this time he was leading a movement for justice. Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son is that rare memoir that is both a riveting personal story and an inside account of a critical chapter in our recent history. Creating safe schools for teenagers is now a central part of the progressive agenda in American education. Like Paul Monette's landmark Becoming a Man, Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, and Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin', Kevin Jennings's poignant, razor-sharp memoir will change the way we see our contemporary world.

30 review for Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son: A Memoir

  1. 4 out of 5

    Gwen

    FANTASTIC memoir! Jennings discusses growing up gay in a fundamentalist white-trash family in the South, and the horrible guilt he spent decades dealing with as a result. So much of the book reflected parts of my life--the difficulty of being a teenager who loves your parents but doesn't want your richer friends to see where you live, fears of fitting in once you leave home, the constant feeling that maybe someone will figure out you don't belong. Jennings eventually goes to Harvard and gets tea FANTASTIC memoir! Jennings discusses growing up gay in a fundamentalist white-trash family in the South, and the horrible guilt he spent decades dealing with as a result. So much of the book reflected parts of my life--the difficulty of being a teenager who loves your parents but doesn't want your richer friends to see where you live, fears of fitting in once you leave home, the constant feeling that maybe someone will figure out you don't belong. Jennings eventually goes to Harvard and gets teaching jobs at elite private schools around Boston. He also deals with the difficulties of coming out in the 1980s. Often his fears are unfounded--students already know he's gay and don't care, for instance, and in most cases are very supportive and proud of him when he is honest about himself. On the other hand, administrators are much more negative; after students at one school demand that sexual orientation be added to the list of non-discrimination policies, the school puts out a memo suggested that students who think they might be gay see a psychologist and think about the consequences of being gay. In a day where domestic partner benefits are pretty common in education, it is shocking to realize how recently people were routinely fired for daring to come out (not that it doesn't happen today). Jennings eventually helps found a national group to help educate teachers about the needs of gay and lesbian students (and teachers). His rage that gay kids are allowed to be brutalized on a daily basis, and that adults do nothing--or even condone it--is explicit. He is PISSED that gay kids have a much higher suicide attempt rate than other kids, that they drop out of school to avoid harassment, that their lives are hellish. And the preacher's boy can use the Bible to back up his call for compassion for harassed kids, as well as the absolute evil of sitting by and watching it happen. This being a Southern memoir, it of course circles back to Momma. After years of estrangement from his mom after he came out, Jennings finds out his mom founded a local chapter of PFLAG in Winston-Salem and works in an AIDS hospice that serves mostly black men. It was a long trip for this woman who dropped out of school at age 9 and was raised to support segregation and believe in a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. Before she dies she tells him she's proud of him for trying to make things better for kids like he was. Throw in his brother marrying a black woman and his mom facing gender discrimination in her job at McDonald's, and you've got a book I loved from cover to cover.

  2. 4 out of 5

    LARRY

    As posted in [http://www.amazon.com]: I had never heard of Kevin Jennings before reading *Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son*. I got this book as a gift for my partner as he is from North Carolina. Read this after my partner read it. My partner loved it as he said he could relate to Kevin. Kevin cracked me up with his memoirs on religion, family, school, sexuality and perspectives. Some of the things he said had me going 'my thoughts exactly'. Kevin grew up Southern Baptist with his father as a preacher. H As posted in [http://www.amazon.com]: I had never heard of Kevin Jennings before reading *Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son*. I got this book as a gift for my partner as he is from North Carolina. Read this after my partner read it. My partner loved it as he said he could relate to Kevin. Kevin cracked me up with his memoirs on religion, family, school, sexuality and perspectives. Some of the things he said had me going 'my thoughts exactly'. Kevin grew up Southern Baptist with his father as a preacher. However, his father had a hard time hanging on to a congregation. So, like a military brat, he moved around constantly until his father suddenly passed away. Uneducated, his mother set out to get a job. She landed a job with McDonald's and became their best employee. With a job in hand, Kevin's mother was able to provide stability in his life. However, regardless of the stability, Kevin was facing taunts from school, calling him degratory names. For those of us who grew up gay or struggled with our sexuality, we all know what that felt like. After high school, he went on to Harvard. From there, Kevin took off like a rocket, especially after Harvard where he founded the Gay-Straight Alliance and other similar organizations. It was such a lovely book that I enjoyed and couldn't put down. I wasn't expecting to be crying at the end where his mother was dying. It was somewhat similar to my mother's death. In fact, they almost thought alike...especially about the flowers. From that point on, I was crying like a baby. But it was a good cry. Overall, wonderful memoir filled with humor, inspiration and perspectives.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Keith Vensey

    I enjoyed reading this book. My background is similar to Jennings in many ways. I too was reared in a rural area, my hometown was hidden in the sticks of Alabama. Some of the details he shared about his high school experiences were just like mine. I hated high school, felt like it was a colossal unpleasant experience that I had to hold me breath to endure. The teasing, name calling, ridicule stained my adolescence. Now I see some of these people on Facebook, reaching out to me like they didn’t t I enjoyed reading this book. My background is similar to Jennings in many ways. I too was reared in a rural area, my hometown was hidden in the sticks of Alabama. Some of the details he shared about his high school experiences were just like mine. I hated high school, felt like it was a colossal unpleasant experience that I had to hold me breath to endure. The teasing, name calling, ridicule stained my adolescence. Now I see some of these people on Facebook, reaching out to me like they didn’t treat me terribly. For many, I chose not to engage which in and of itself is cathartic. I appreciated how he discussed religion, particularly the erroneous interpretation of it, can make your life far more difficult that it has to be. I’m 35 and still find myself fighting some of the self-loathing and self-hate that was put into my heart my religious zealots and sheer homophobes in my family and hometown. It warmed my heart to see Jennings finally come into his own, seeing him “escape” and “flee” North Carolina. I feel the same exact way about Alabama. Goodness, I hate that place. On the flip side, there are some things I learned from being raised in Alabama that I hold dear as does Jennings with his religious upbringing. This things make me who I am. I did not continue returning the religious teachings as he has, but I do remain spiritually aware. Any gay person feeling as if his/her upbringing has irreparably ruined their psyche should read Jennings book, Mama Boy, Preacher Son. His journey epitomizes how such an upbringing can be overcome, maybe not easily but it is possible.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Carla

    I had the good fortune to meet Kevin Jennings last summer through my graduate program. He is impressive and grounded and a captivating raconteur. Most significantly for me, his memoir traces the awareness of LGBTQ issues and emergence of gay-straight alliances in Northeastern independent schools which reminds me how far our schools have come since the late 1980s and why so many young people and faculty members in our communities live in abject fear after the presidential election. While an indep I had the good fortune to meet Kevin Jennings last summer through my graduate program. He is impressive and grounded and a captivating raconteur. Most significantly for me, his memoir traces the awareness of LGBTQ issues and emergence of gay-straight alliances in Northeastern independent schools which reminds me how far our schools have come since the late 1980s and why so many young people and faculty members in our communities live in abject fear after the presidential election. While an independent school teacher, Jennings founded what is now know as GLSEN, an organization with a mission to "improve an education system that too frequently allows its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) students to be bullied, discriminated against, or fall through the cracks." Aside from Jennings' story about coming to terms with his own identity, he reminds that diversity (in all forms) has not been present or championed in academic bastions of privilege and affluence and that all individuals benefit from an inclusive, safe, and supportive educational environment. A useful primer to understand how far many of our schools have come, where work still needs to be done and how essential GLSEN's advocacy work is for school communities.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jamie

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. This book led me into the world of a boy who grows up in a fundamentalist Southern church and is gay and the battle of self-worth that he manages to win and inspire in others. Jennings personal experience led him to activism protecting GLBT children from being bullied in schools in several states- vital legislation given the disproportionally high suicide rate among GLBT youth. Jennings' organization has also been instrumental in bringing Gay-Straight Alliance groups to schools across the countr This book led me into the world of a boy who grows up in a fundamentalist Southern church and is gay and the battle of self-worth that he manages to win and inspire in others. Jennings personal experience led him to activism protecting GLBT children from being bullied in schools in several states- vital legislation given the disproportionally high suicide rate among GLBT youth. Jennings' organization has also been instrumental in bringing Gay-Straight Alliance groups to schools across the country. Not incidentally, we also see his mother's transformation from shame of her son to embrace of her son and his activism.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Katkins

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I really, really liked this book. Superficially I have little in common with the author - I'm not gay, didn't grow up in the South, and my family wasn't poor. But I could absolutely relate to the feeling (and reality) of not fitting in where you grew up or with your family, and of being so different than anyone around you that there is no choice but to leave. Jennings was extremely fortunate that his brother in Hawaii took him in and that this led to the opportunities he later found. Not everyon I really, really liked this book. Superficially I have little in common with the author - I'm not gay, didn't grow up in the South, and my family wasn't poor. But I could absolutely relate to the feeling (and reality) of not fitting in where you grew up or with your family, and of being so different than anyone around you that there is no choice but to leave. Jennings was extremely fortunate that his brother in Hawaii took him in and that this led to the opportunities he later found. Not everyone is that lucky and many stories like his don't end well. But he made full use of those opportunities and changed the lives of many, many people for the better. I'm glad he did well.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Beth

    I've been meaning to read this ever since last year, when I heard Jennings read from his book and speak about GLBT issues in schools. He's an excellent speaker and a good memoirist. His exploration of class issues is at least as rich as his description of his coming out journey. He is insightful about his experiences growing up in a poor Southern family, attending Harvard, and teaching at elite prep schools and how these intersected with his struggles with coming out and speaking out against hom I've been meaning to read this ever since last year, when I heard Jennings read from his book and speak about GLBT issues in schools. He's an excellent speaker and a good memoirist. His exploration of class issues is at least as rich as his description of his coming out journey. He is insightful about his experiences growing up in a poor Southern family, attending Harvard, and teaching at elite prep schools and how these intersected with his struggles with coming out and speaking out against homophobia and hypocrisy.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    I kinda want to just give this a 3.5 because it bothered me that he never really talks about how he unlearned some of his own racism. I enjoyed the second half of this book more than the first. It was interesting to read about how many of the gay rights organizations we know today started and see the long tedious process of them all. Plus his journey with his mom was relatable in the sense of drifting from them but ultimately, after a lot of time and effort, finding your way back.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Flann Harris

    The book started as a greatly insightful journey in the coming of age of a gay kid from humbled means in the South. Two-thirds of the way through the book it became a self congratulatory homage to his accomplishments after assimilating into the high ranks of blue-blooded hyper educated Northerners.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    Very well written/ quick read. Excellent insights to GLTB challenges, in autobiographical book by Kevin Jennings. Very glad I read it--contains some touching passages/writing and demonstrates great determination on his part as a gay man in a the educational world that is still struggling with these gender/sexuality issues.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

    Having met Kevin years ago when he was teaching in MA and hearing him talk several times in the intervening years, I liked hearing more about his struggles as a gay man and his concerns for making schools safe for gay students. He has worked to make an impact noy just locally, but also nationally. The work is ongoing...

  12. 5 out of 5

    Heather Bottoms

    Started off a bit slow, but then it got rolling and I enjoyed it. Very interesting to hear the story of how Kevin Jennings went from a childhood trailer park, to Harvard, to teaching, to creating GLSEN (Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network) with chapters all over the country. His personal story is incredibly moving.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Roger

    Sadly, Kevin Jenning's memoir was overlooked by the press (and the public) when it was published a few years ago. WHY?!?!? It already reads like a classic. I hope more people discover it in the years to come.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Theo

    Kevin Jennings' life story makes for a readable memoir tracking him from sickly young boy to reluctant activist. Along the way, he creates the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to protect students from in-school harassment.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Vika Gardner

    I found this to be amazingly evocative of a time and place, giving access to the author's feelings in a way that's neither preachy nor pathetic. I'd recommend this to anyone who wants to understand what it's like to grow up gay.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Slammy

    So far i'm really liking this book, which is surprising since i hate reading about other peoples lives except my own. haha I have never read anything about a gay guy before so its giving me a new understanding

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kara

    Fantastic - I forgot to eat lunch today because I was too busy reading this book. Very well-written account of growing up gay in the Bible belt and the hardships faced by lgbt students every day in the classroom.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    Well written and a great introduction to the man behind GLSEN. I would have like to have had the author talk more about how his relationship evolved with his mother. I think there is a great story there.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Rick Young

    This book is so much like my personal life growing up in southern Ohio,scary. So much for the 1960’s and being gay class of 67. Painful,sad, heartbreaking,inspirational and funny at times. Loving life.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    One man's memoir of growing up poor, gay, and Southern (that may be the cover tagline). This book opened my eyes, made me cry, and strengthened my belief in the importance of teaching tolerance.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Dave

    Autobiography by the founder of GLSEN. Interesting and resonant.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Joy

    I knew Kevin Jennings founded GLSEN, but I didn't know he is now the Assistant Deputy Secretary for Safe and Drug Free Schools at the US Dept of Ed. So that makes us colleagues?

  23. 5 out of 5

    David

    A definite recommendation. A memoir that I could relate to because some of his thoughts were my thoughts and a shared experience on many levels.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Garrett

    Very well written and very thought provoking! I appreciated his personal insights, and I appreciate what Kevin Jennings is doing every day to make this world a better place!

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kim

    Memoir from founder of GLSTN who brought LGBT awareness to private and public schools when those letters weren't well recognized and often misunderstood and mistreated.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Roger

    Inspirational, gut wrenching in parts. As a counselor I related to many of the stories shared by kids who were tortured by other kids, some who had no idea their laughter was contributing to another’s pain. Kevin and his mother are testaments that knowledge can bring about positive change. Thank you. I highly recommended this book especially to the USVP and other evilangelicals

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

    This memoir offers insight into the life of one particular gay man and his experience growing up surrounded by hatred, bigotry, and shame. The book is well written and the reader really feels the emotions Kevin felt growing up. It will make you laugh, cry, happy, and angry. The author, Kevin Jennings, went on to found the largest national education organization working to ensure safe schools for ALL students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity called GLSEN, or the Gay, Lesbian This memoir offers insight into the life of one particular gay man and his experience growing up surrounded by hatred, bigotry, and shame. The book is well written and the reader really feels the emotions Kevin felt growing up. It will make you laugh, cry, happy, and angry. The author, Kevin Jennings, went on to found the largest national education organization working to ensure safe schools for ALL students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity called GLSEN, or the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    Every teacher in America should read this book. Since I'm not a teacher, I liked this book for a number of reasons. I hadn't realized how much advancement has been made - and how far we have to go - in making our schools safe for gay and lesbian kids. This is a fairly straight-forward autobiography of Jennings' education and rise through the ranks as a private school teacher and eventual LGBT equality activist, but there are poignant moments, too.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ashley Parr

    This book has changed my outlook on high school and the education system. It makes me want to be a part of it, to make a difference.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Liralen

    By age eight, I had learned everything I needed to know about being a man from my dad and my brothers. Being a real man meant taking advantage of anyone smaller or weaker than you. Being a real man meant never showing emotions or "weakness," even if you were eight and at your dad's funeral. And any male who deviated from those standards had a name. That name was faggot. That would be me. (19)Jennings grew up poor and Southern—poor and Southern and gay, though it wasn't until he was somewhat older By age eight, I had learned everything I needed to know about being a man from my dad and my brothers. Being a real man meant taking advantage of anyone smaller or weaker than you. Being a real man meant never showing emotions or "weakness," even if you were eight and at your dad's funeral. And any male who deviated from those standards had a name. That name was faggot. That would be me. (19)Jennings grew up poor and Southern—poor and Southern and gay, though it wasn't until he was somewhat older that he'd admit to the last of those. Mama's boy, says the title, and for Jennings that meant not having the natural athleticism (or the support) of his brothers; preacher's son, says the tile, and for Jennings that meant this:Southern Baptist ministers are somewhat akin to free agents in professional sports; they are hired and fired by congregations at will... As a kid, from my view in the front pew, I thought Dad was great and couldn't figure out why he could never seem to get or hold on to a congregation. I didn't understand yet that his Yankee accent was alienating to his Southern audiences or know that he had an unfortunate habit of sleeping with the deacon's [sic] wives, making it hard to hold on to a pulpit once he got it. (6)It's Jennings's early life that interests me most, that deep-South upbringing. He talks at some length about his mother, who grew up not just poor but dirt poor and was pulled out of school to work in the fields before she could go to middle school. But it was also his mother who kept the family running after Jennings's father died, and it was also his mother who eventually worked to overcome the many prejudices that she'd grown up with (and passed on to her children). The later parts of the book interest me less. I went into the book thinking that this would be primarily about the tension of, well, growing up gay in the South. There's some of that, but there's just as much about the teaching and activism work that Jennings did later, leaving less room to flesh out the stories of his youth. I understand that his activism is probably what got him the book deal in the first place, and I'm not in any way suggestion that it's not important...just that it makes for less of a suck-you-in story. It has its moments, and I enjoyed the read, but I think I'd have loved it if it had been...hmm...less about the platform and more about the story.

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