National LGBTQ group GLSEN appoints first black, non-binary executive

National LGBTQ advocacy group GLSEN has appointed Melanie Willingham-Jaggers as chief executive — the first black and non-binary person to lead the organization.

GLSEN was founded by a group of teachers in 1990 with the goal of making schools safer for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gay K-12 students. It now has 38 chapters in more than half of the states and has registered thousands of gender-sex unions, or GSAs (formerly known as gay unions).

Image: Melanie-Willingham-Jaggers
Melanie Willingham-Jaggers.polite GLSEN

Willingham-Jaggers, 39, who joined the group as vice president of operations in 2019, is taking on the new position at a time when LGBTQ students have become part of a larger culture war taking place. out at school board meetings and in classrooms around the country. More than 30 states last year considered bills that would ban transgender students in middle schools, high schools and colleges from playing on their gender identity sports teams. Ten Statuses – nine in the last year – have enacted such measures.

More than half of all states also considered legislation that targets the curriculum, by restricting how schools can teach about race or banning LGBTQ topics from classroom discussion. Some school districts also have forbidden book discuss racial or LGBTQ topics.

Those wars continued this year. But instead of focusing on or responding to those efforts, Willingham-Jaggers, who uses both the pronouns “she” and “they,” is excited about supporting youth in schools across the country. so they have the power to make their schools safer.

“The LGBTQ+ young people in their schools and student groups, like the GSA, have always been the hub, the breeding ground, the ground from which these sparks of activism are born,” they said. “What we understand is that young people – the period – will help us understand the vision forward and the path towards the future.”

She noted that the group was created to prevent harassment, discrimination, and bullying of LGBTQ youth. In the 1990s, LGBTQ youth, she said, were often told that bullying was just a “part of life” and that they simply shouldn’t be gay. Over the past 30 years, the group has changed that narrative so that LGBTQ kids bullying children is no longer culturally acceptable, she said.

Since 1999, the team has also conducted extensive research and released National School Climate Survey, a national survey of LGBTQ middle and high school students’ experiences with harassment, bullying, and discrimination. It uses the findings to recommend school policy solutions.

More recently, the team has changed its approach from “getting rid of the bad stuff” to “building safe,” says Willingham-Jaggers. The organization plans to do that by focusing on its three new pillars, which it created during its strategic refresh in 2020. It is promoting educational outcomes and distributive equity. race, sex and disability; build digital connections to expand reach; and unify the organization and its 38 chapters to ensure that its grassroots operations are effective.

They say: “We know that our young people are not little rainbow canes. “They were black and brown and Aboriginal and white. They are cis and sexually extended. They are children with disabilities and people without disabilities. We know that they come from families and communities with immigrant experience, experiencing violence from many different systems.”

She says that most of the group’s chapters are in the South and Midwest, and the grid is disproportionately white, but that’s where she sees the beauty in the work.

“Now imagine a network of whites in the South and Midwest, largely suburban, deeply connected to ensure that education enhances racial, gender equitable outcomes. and disabilities,” she said. “That was beautiful to me. It’s really cool. That has profound power.”

Interlacing has always been central to Willingham-Jaggers’ work. She said she identifies as both a Black woman and a non-mixer, in part because she was raised and socialized as a girl and because Black women are her “political North Star”.

She noted that GLSEN was founded by a white man who was transgender – a word that describes a person who determined their assigned gender at birth – and he was later founded by someone white lesbians.

“And then I came here, not by accident, and by no means inevitable,” she said. “So I just want to honor the journey this organization has taken and the purported choice they have made to hire someone with my identity and life experience.”

Eliza Byard, the group’s former chief executive, says Willingham-Jaggers’ experience as an organizer and “deep connections between movements” is invaluable for future work Group.

“The world of K-12 schools has been completely turned upside down in the past few years, and Melanie’s vision and experience will provide the essential ingredients for new strategies in a new age,” she said. .

Willingham-Jaggers has been working with LGBTQ youth informally since they were camp counselors in Southern California when they were 17. But officially, they started working in 2009 when they moved to New York City from Cincinnati to work for an organization that supports runaway and homeless youth who were rejected by their families and caregivers because they identify as gay or transgender.

Their experience in that job continues to inform their work today, they said. After a year of work, Mosey Diaz, a young person with whom they were close, died by suicide, during the more and more LGBTQ youth die by suicide – many are involved in harassment.

“It was really a formative moment for me to understand that, yes, I have worked with runaway and homeless children, but this is part of a larger LGBTQ+ movement to really change the world. world so these young people know the world is what they speak for.

Willingham-Jaggers said Diaz also helped her understand that people who work serving others must come with more than their “good intentions.”

“We can’t just come in with a bag full of hope,” she said. “We have to do our job well, because the stakes are very high.”

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit for more resources.

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Jake Nichol

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