The nationwide LGBTQ+ advocacy group Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has announced the appointment of its new Executive Director, Melanie Willingham-Jaggers. They will be the first Black, nonbinary individual to lead the group in its 32-year history.
Founded in 1990 by a group of educators focused on helping make schools safer for LGBTQ+ students, GLSEN now has 38 different chapters across the country and has assisted with the registration and formation of thousands of gender-sexuality alliances or GSAs (formerly known as gay-straight alliances) since its inception.
Jo Yurcaba of NBC News reported that “Willingham-Jaggers, who joined the group as Deputy Executive Director in 2019, is taking on the new position at a time when LGBTQ+ students have become part of a larger culture war taking place at school board meetings and in classrooms around the country.”
“More than 30 states considered bills last year that would ban transgender students in middle schools, high schools and colleges from playing on the sports teams of their gender identities. Ten states — nine in the last year — enacted such measures.”
While Willingham-Jaggers has said they hope to continue fighting against these movements in their new role, they also want to continue helping to make schools safer for LGBTQ+ youth as they begin their journey of self-discovery and travel into adulthood.
“LGBTQ+ young people in schools and their student groups, like GSAs, have always been the hub, kind of the breeding ground, the soil from which these sparks of activism come up,” Willingham-Jaggers said. “What we understand is that young people — period — are going to help us understand the vision forward and the way forward to the future.”
Yurcaba also noted that following a “strategic refresh” in 2020, GLSEN as an organization intends to focus on three main pillars of community involvement: “Advancing racial, gender and disability justice outcomes and education; building digital connections to extend reach; and unifying the organization and its 38 chapters to ensure that its grassroots work is effective.”
“We know that our young people are not little rainbow-colored stick figures,” Willingham-Jaggers told NBC. “They are Black and brown and Indigenous and white. They are cis and gender expansive. They are kids living with disabilities and folks who are not. We know that they come from families and communities that have immigrant experience, that experience violence from various systems.”
Speaking on the importance of their new role, Willingham-Jaggers said, “I just want to honor the journey that this organization has taken and the on-purpose choice that it took to hire a person of my identity and my life experience.”
They then added, reflecting on the importance and influence the group can have on the lives of LGBTQ+ youth, “We can’t just come with a pocket full of hope. We have to be good at our work because the stakes are incredibly high.”
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