GLSEN has seen much success in its goal to make schools safer for LGBTQ+ students, but the job is nowhere near finished, says new executive director Melanie Willingham-Jaggers.
“We’ve made incredible progress in recent years, and I’m eager to make more progress, but I know that too many of our students still aren’t safe,” says Willingham-Jaggers, who’s the first person of color, first nonbinary person, and first Black woman to head the organization.
Willingham-Jaggers, who uses she/they pronouns, became executive director in January. They were named interim executive director a year earlier, when Eliza Byard stepped down after nearly 20 years leading GLSEN, and had been deputy executive director since 2019.
Challenges facing the educational system and marginalized students include systemic inequities such as insufficient funding, along with legislation that seeks to erase LGBTQ+ content from the curriculum and discriminate against LGBTQ+ youth, especially transgender youth, she notes. GLSEN will stand firm against efforts to take schools backward and will be “pushing always for the needs of the most marginalized to be represented and addressed,” she says. The organization will not only fight bad legislation but advocate for proactive policies that guard basic rights.
“I envision a future where our education system is a cohesive, supportive fabric that helps all young people, including LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized young people, grow up healthy, happy, and empowered,” Willingham-Jaggers says. “This is a future where schools are not only safe but liberated and supportive places.” Means to accomplish this include collaborations between GLSEN’s national headquarters and its 38 chapters as well as between GLSEN and other social justice groups.
“Because of my identities and experiences, I am acutely aware of the disproportionate barriers still facing so many of our most vulnerable students, and I commit to redoubling our efforts to center gender justice, disability justice, and racial justice in all that we do,” they say.
“It’s impossible to support queer youth without seeing and supporting their entire identity,” they continue. “Queer youth are also people of color, people with disabilities, people who are undocumented, and people with many other marginalized experiences. Our community, our queer community, lives at these intersections of identity and expression, and we must recognize and embrace that.… Either we mean all or we don’t.”