After 12 years, Eliza Byard is stepping down as executive director of GLSEN, the 30-year-old organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ students and youth. Byard served nearly 20 years in leadership positions at the organization and served as one of the most prominent women in queer advocacy.
In an open letter posted on the GLSEN website, Byard explained that she’s leaving the organization “extremely well positioned to continue to act as an agent of change” and says they’re in their “strongest financial position ever.”
Byard's final years at the organization coincided with the Trump presidency, when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos removed protections for transgender students and the administration erased data collection on LGBTQ+ youth.
In her announcement, Byard emphasized GLSEN is focusing on becoming more actively anti-racist. “Perhaps most importantly, GLSEN has been engaged for some time in an on-going process of learning, self-assessment, and transformation, to create the internal culture and external strategies necessary to contribute to the anti-racist work essential to achieving our mission,” she said.
In the letter, Byard talked about some of her proudest accomplishments, including laws protecting LGBTQ+ students and the exponential growth of Gay-Straight Alliances at schools. “When I began this work, it was not legal to be gay in 15 states,” she wrote, “Today more than 26 million U.S. students go to school in states with laws that specifically protect LGBTQ+ students from harassment and violence.”
She continued, saying, “today, more than 80% of teachers and school-based mental health providers consider it their professional responsibility to support, protect, and affirm LGBTQ+ students; 1,300 educators registered for our GSA advisor summit in September; and more than 65% of all LGBTQ+ students have access to a GSA.”
Byard ended her letter by thanking people. “Special thanks are due to GLSEN Board members, past and present, who are such dedicated stewards of the mission and ambassadors for our cause,” she said, “I am so grateful to all the colleagues, partners, and donors whose commitment to GLSEN has made everything possible.”
The move becomes official on March 1, when Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, the current deputy executive director, will become interim executive director while the board of directors launches a search for the organization's next leader.