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GLSEN's New Leaders on Meeting a Crucial Moment for LGBTQ+ Youth

GLSEN's New Leaders on Meeting a Crucial Moment for LGBTQ+ Youth

From left: Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, Imara Jones, and Wilson Cruz

The new board chair and vice chair, Wilson Cruz and Imara Jones, talk about their mission, along with Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, who became executive director last year.

With LGBTQ+ youth and the organizations that serve them under attack, GLSEN’s mission is more important than ever — and the group’s new leaders say they’re ready for the fight.

“I’m fully aware that there’s a lot of work to do,” says actor-activist Wilson Cruz, who has been on GLSEN’s board of directors for several years and was recently named chair.

“I want to make sure that we have the organization match the moment,” adds journalist Imara Jones, who also has several years of experience on the board and became vice chair this summer.

Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, who has been GLSEN’s executive director for a year and a half, says she’s confident the group will. “I can think of no better leadership team for this moment,” she says of Cruz and Jones. Cruz has been a champion for LGBTQ+ youth for decades, she says, while Jones is “one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known.”

“Wilson and Imara and I understand that education is the cornerstone of democracy,” the executive director says. If the U.S. is to have a multiracial, multicultural democracy going forward, the education system must be multiracial and multicultural as well, she points out.

Cruz and Jones bring long records of activism to their new roles. Cruz first became famous for playing gay teen Rickie Vasquez on the 1990s series My So-Called Life, making him the first out gay man to play a clearly gay character on network TV.

“I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t aware of how impactful that was,” Cruz tells The Advocate. Playing Rickie, he says, was an experience that made him feel both proud and humbled. The character helped create an army of young LGBTQ+ people, he notes.

More recently, on Star Trek: Discovery, he’s played a space-traveling physician in a same-sex marriage. He can’t talk about the show now because of the ongoing actors’ strike, but he says that throughout his career, which includes a stint as national spokesperson for GLAAD, he has combined acting and activism. “This work I do at GLSEN is an extension of that,” he says.

Jones, a Black transgender woman, is the founder of TransLash Media, a nonprofit, cross-platform journalism organization. Her work has won Emmy and Peabody awards, along with recognition from Time as one of the world’s 100 most influential people and the Journalist of Distinction Award from the National Black Journalists Association — the first trans person to win an award from the group. Both she and Cruz have received GLAAD Awards as well.

“I understand very acutely the attacks on trans youth,” Jones says. Those attacks include bans on gender-affirming health care for trans youth — enacted by 22 states so far — along with laws that force or at least allow school personnel to out them to their parents. Plus LGBTQ+ youth in general are affected by laws in several states that prohibit instruction about gender identity or sexual orientation.

Young trans people of color, Jones points out, are often in a more difficult situation than their white counterparts, as they face multiple types of bigotry. Also, trans youth in rural areas frequently encounter more problems than those in urban centers. She’s committed to helping these historically underserved populations, she says, adding, “I know our executive director shares the vision.”

She and Cruz note that the on-the-ground work of fighting for LGBTQ+ youth is done by the young people themselves, and GLSEN’s mission is about assisting those young people and the adults who are on their side. “This work is really about standing up to bullies,” Cruz says. “Young people do that, and our job is to support them.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of work to do to support the kids and the adults around them and the institutions,” Jones says.

The ways GLSEN supports students and educators are many. It provides resources to students and schools, including guidance on organizing gay-straight alliance clubs (now sometimes called gender and sexuality alliances). It offers lesson plans and trainings for teachers and other school staffers. Its Safe Space Kit is a comprehensive guide for adults seeking to act in allyship with LGBTQ+ students. Changing the Game: The GLSEN Sports Project provides advice on creating an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ student athletes.

Its programs for students to show support for LGBTQ+ equality include the Day of Silence, Solidarity Week, and No Name-Calling Week. It conducts research on students’ lives such as the School Climate Survey. In its Rise Up campaign, public officials and ordinary citizens can pledge to support LGBTQ+ youth. A dozen governors have taken the pledge, and Rise Up resolutions have been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate.

Most of GLSEN’s leaders have encountered homophobia or transphobia in their lives. When Cruz was in high school in the late ’80s-early ’90s in Southern California, “there wasn’t a day that went by that I wasn’t called a faggot,” he recalls. “This is my way of helping assure the experience for queer students in this country is better than the one I had.”

Things have gotten better in some ways since then, thanks partly to the efforts of GLSEN and other activist groups, but the political attacks have risen in the past few years. “I do think there’s an element of backlash” to progress, Cruz says, but the surge isn’t all due to that — it’s also about “dangerous and irresponsible rhetoric.” In particular, he says, Donald Trump “gave people permission to listen to their lesser selves and strike out in fear toward a community that wants to live in peace.”

“They’re attempting to shame us back into the closet,” he says. But he and his GLSEN colleagues are not about to let that happen.

With Cruz and Jones’s new posts, plus Willingham-Jaggers’s appointment last year, for the first-time in GLSEN’s 33-year history, the organization’s board chairs and executive director are either BIPOC, nonbinary, and/or trans people. “It makes me proud to have that level of representation,” Willingham-Jaggers says.

The previous board chair was Rocío Inclán, an executive with the National Education Association, and the vice chair was musician Chely Wright. The changes were all voluntary and came amid a celebratory atmosphere, Willingham-Jaggers says. “It was such a positive and warm kind of transition,” she says. "We all aligned."

"The work continues; the fight continues. ... This is a moment of deep importance,” she notes.

Jones adds, “The need for GLSEN becomes stronger with each passing day.”

Pictured, from left: Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, Imara Jones, and Wilson Cruz

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