Metro Weekly

LGBTQ students are under attack. GLSEN’s Melanie Willingham-Jaggers is ready to fight back.

Willingham-Jaggers is taking the reins of LGBTQ educational advocacy organization GLSEN in the midst of rising bigotry in schools nationwide

glsen, lgbtq youth, students, education
Melanie Willingham-Jaggers

“We’ve really doubled down in our thinking, planning and commitment to the ideas that there are justice outcomes that must happen as a result of education,” says Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, the newly-named executive director of GLSEN, the LGBTQ+ educational advocacy organization. “We can’t be in schools protecting, defending, and expanding the supports and affirmation of LGBTQ+ young people if we’re not paying attention to the fact that those LGBTQ+ young people, at least some of them, experience racial injustice, experience marginalization because of their gender identity, and experience bad outcomes because of their ability status –- both physical and neurological — in terms of disability justice.

“We know we have to have justice outcomes for the most marginalized young people, because those kids are also queer,” they continue. “Our universe of young people is always going to be LGBTQ+ students, but it’s not that these kids are rainbow-colored stick figures that hold no other identities. It’s that these kids are part of every community, so we have to understand ourselves as being connected to, and in service of, a broader justice agenda.”

Willingham-Jaggers, who uses the pronouns they/she, was named full-time executive director last month after having previously served as interim executive director since March of 2021, and deputy executive director since joining GLSEN in 2019. They are GLSEN’s first Black and first nonbinary executive director. Willingham-Jaggers notes that their identity as both a Black woman and someone who is nonbinary and gender-expansive is “deeply political” to them.

“I understand myself as a Black woman in the political sense, in my Blackness,” Willingham-Jaggers says. “But outside of that, I understand myself as nonbinary. I am absolutely a feminist, but I’ve got to say that the feminism that is rooted in one’s body is not feminism that speaks to me. It really is an orientation toward what it means to include and respect the dignity of all people, unearth and unseat patriarchy and misogyny.”

Prior to joining GLSEN, Willingham-Jaggers gained extensive experience working as an organizer and leader in social justice movements, including as program associate director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and as board chair of The Audre Lorde Project, the oldest community organizing organization for LGBTQ2S+ people of color in the New York City area. They also worked for the Caring Across Generations campaign run by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Jobs With Justice, where they were embedded with Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN), working to build coalitions between disparate groups that were often pitted against one another.

“Part of how I understand my work, and part of what I bring with me to GLSEN, is this understanding that when you can get people to the table who, overarchingly, want the same thing, want a better world, but may have smaller, more intimate, and more sharply misaligned interests, it’s worth working through those misalignments to build a shared, united and powerful agenda. My work of organizing really is focusing on relationship building, building alliances between communities that are too often pitted against each other, and articulating a common agenda that works for everyone.”

Eliza Byard, GLSEN’s former executive director, says she was “thrilled” when Willingham-Jaggers joined the organization, noting that their experience working across different movements, past organizing work, and past work with youth were assets they were bringing to the job.

“I was really fortunate to have Melanie as a partner in the work. She brings an incredible passion and dedication to work for social justice and work to create a path to opportunity and joy for LGBTQ+ youth,” Byard says. “She is determined. She brings a great calm about difficult decision-making. She is really thoughtful about the work that it takes to build a strong foundation of trust in working relationships in order to do the very difficult work of change.”

GLSEN has weathered many cycles in which it has seen attacks on public education and LGBTQ+ youth in schools over its more than 30 years in operation. Byard notes that Willingham-Jaggers is assuming leadership over GLSEN at a time when anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is once again on a sharp rise, with opponents of LGBTQ+ equality not only taking over school boards but legislatures, where they are proposing bills to restrict opportunities and services available to LGBTQ+ youth.

Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, GLSEN
Melanie Willingham-Jaggers

“One of the most important aspects of our time now as LGBTQ+ people is that the institutions and the norms that have been important toehold towards liberation, including the courts, including norms of respect and civility, and the possible levers for change in our favor are themselves under attack in a very different way now. That really is a result of the Trump presidency,” says Byard. “So what that means is that, from a social movement perspective, the balance between institutional expertise and movement building shifts and the ability to work in partnership with movement, the ability to organize and work with people at the grassroots, becomes more important.”

Byard adds that “we are in a period of history where our ability to resist is leaning into the movement direction in a way that I felt, in meeting Melanie and talking with her, would be very important, and particularly movement building across civil rights movements, Black liberation movements, LGBTQ movements was going to be absolutely essential for the next chapter of a very long-term fight.

“We are moving through a very difficult and very dangerous time for LGBTQ+ people. And Melanie brings both sharp perception, deep and strong relationships across movements, and a sense of joy and purpose together that are absolutely crucial for resilience in a very difficult time.”

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s talk about your earliest years and what your family was like as a child.

MELANIE WILLINGHAM-JAGGERS: I was raised by a single mother. She was single by choice, and a mother by choice. There’s some complexity here, because I actually come from a really big extended family. I’m number 18 of 25 of my grandmother’s grandchildren. So I’ve got 25 first cousins, probably 75 second and third cousins, just on my mom’s side. And everyone was living in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the time, or most people were. Then when I was 11, my mom got a job out in California and we moved out there. In 1993, just a year after the unrest and uprisings in Los Angeles, my mom and I moved to Altadena, California.

The one thing I would just say about Cincinnati is that in 1985, my mom and I actually integrated a neighborhood on Cincinnati’s West Side. That was really the place where what child development experts would call my racial identity formation took place. It was an experience that really shaped me in many ways.

My mom and I were the first Black people to move into that neighborhood, period. And because she was a professional working woman of the eighties, she was involved in Model Cities during the seventies.

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Model Cities, but that was a federal program that gave block grants to U.S. cities with large Black populations to help support President Johnson’s War on Poverty. As a result of her working in that field, she understood and knew the rules of the road, so she was able to buy a gigantic but dilapidated house in this rundown part of town, in this all-white neighborhood, and was able to renovate it.

I was talking with her recently about that home, and I think she said the house cost a total of $25,000 and she got a renovation loan, so she put another $20,000 into it, effectively doubling the value of the home. And when we did that, that made us the “rich people” on the block, right? By all accounts, in today’s day and age, she’d be understood as working middle class. But in that neighborhood, we were rich. We were the gentrifiers. We were both the integrationists, and the gentrifiers, and that’s a really interesting situation to be in as a three-year-old.

One of my first memories actually of living in that house was, on one of the first nights there, a cinder block came through my window, and attached to it was a note that included the N-word that said, “N*****s, get out.” Again, this is 1985, and the political milieu of Cincinnati was very, very interesting at the time.

I’m going to say one other thing about my mom because it’s contextual and important. She was a nun from 1960 to 1968. She left the convent in 1968, having gone in at 18 and coming out at 26. The world had changed meaningfully around her when she had come out. I say that because my mom was literally a former nun so I had a pretty loving but kind of austere upbringing. She was pretty strict and pretty firm. Again, my world was relatively small and kind of insulated in Cincinnati, with just family.

Then when we moved to California, we didn’t have any family around us, so my world expanded and really exploded open. It was interesting, I would say. I had challenges in school. I had some learning difficulties so my mom really prioritized me having a school experience where I had lots of attention from teachers, lots of attention and support. Because she was a single mom and she had to travel for work, I went to a boarding school for the first couple of years when I was in late elementary and junior high. Then I went to an all-girls Catholic school a number of years later.

MW: Do you embrace the label “queer” as part of your identity?

WILLINGHAM-JAGGERS: Yes, I identify as queer. This is a bit of a side note, but oftentimes, people say, “Don’t call yourself an ally, let people call you an ally.” So when I think about what I call myself, I think about which people claim me. Who are my people? My people are Black lesbians. My people are Black women. I identify myself and understand myself as a queer person because I think it speaks to my political orientation and understanding of seeking freedom and dignity for everyone beyond labels. But I’m also married to a cisgender woman. So I walk through the world as a Black lesbian in many ways and understand myself as a queer person, as a way to highlight and lift up my political identities, alignments and commitments.

MW: When did you start becoming cognizant of your identity, whether it was your gender or your sexuality?

WILLINGHAM-JAGGERS: It’s interesting, because around 1990 — the year GLSEN was founded –- when I was eight years old, I remember different occasions around that time in my life. One was I had heard the term “gay” or “lesbian” somewhere, and I thought to myself, “I don’t exactly know what that is, but I definitely can’t be that,” because it was described in a way that was kind of painful and wrong and disparaging. I was like, “Okay, well, I don’t know what that is, but can’t do that.”

Then there was another moment when I was going to Montessori school from kindergarten to second grade, I was sitting with a tablemate, and we were talking as little kids do when they should be working. And I remember asking my tablemate, “Hey, are your parents homosexuals?” And the kid was, I think, probably confused. And they were like, “No, I don’t think so. Neither my mom nor my dad is a homosexual.” I was like, “Well, my mom is a homosexual, because she has sex at home.” Again, I was really, really grappling with really chewing on these words that I didn’t know about, accepting one term while rejecting another.

Another time, in Montessori school, I remember being excused to go to the bathroom. And this was the eighties, so I was walking down the hall, wearing what I still think of to this day as the most cool parachute pants that anyone could have ever owned. They were gray, made out of this cool material. I felt like a total badass at seven years old.

But when I outgrew them and couldn’t wear them anymore, I was so sad. Because “pants were for boys and dresses were for girls,” and I hated dresses.

I remember thinking: “Well, the world sees me as a girl. I don’t know that I see myself as a girl, because girls do this, they like dolls and the color pink and dresses and things in their hair…” And I thought, “That’s not me, but it’s okay, because I know who I am. And the world can see me as that, but I see myself as something different.”

So I was able to kind of resolve that psychic tension of how I was being socialized by the world around me and my own identity. So I think about that as my first understanding of myself as something beyond the gender that was assigned to me. And that’s why gender-expansive really resonates with me as a personal name for my identity.

MW: What about when you were older?

WILLINGHAM-JAGGERS: The thing I learned in California was that nobody knew me, so I had to be likable and I had to get people to know me. One of the ways that I doubled down at that time was not being different, that idea of “Let me be the same as other people.” I’ve got a pretty strong personality and I tend to stick out anyway, but let me just see what other people are doing and let me go that route, because I need people to like me, because no one here knows me.

What’s interesting is, looking back, everyone knew I was gay except for me. I’ve talked and laughed with some friends from high school who were like, “Yeah, girl, we knew.” But even as I thought I was playing straight, and thought I was fooling people, I wasn’t.

I would just say, also, there was less focus on my gender, and more so around my race and the parts of my identity that were visible and received a strong response from the world around me. The thing I think that was most marking about my time in California was being one of a few Black kids in my school and having to navigate that. The school I went to was multiracial, but not very Black. I think there were four Black people, including me, in my graduating class of forty-four. It was a small school, largely Latina and white and some Asian folks.

MW: Can you give some examples of the strong responses you mentioned, where race was focused on?

WILLINGHAM-JAGGERS: I remember having a moment in the 11th grade, when I was on the varsity basketball team. I was the one Black person on the team. And I remember being on the court, having fun with my friends, kind of chasing people. We were horsing around before practice started, and I slipped and fell in a way that kids do when they’re doing too much. I fell flat on my back. I’m sure it looked pretty funny. I realized, people were laughing. I was like, “Oh, no. They’re laughing at me, not laughing with me. I’m entertaining them. Oh, no.”

There was another moment when my basketball coach at that time said something — I don’t remember if he was talking about me or he was talking about the other team that we were playing that was predominantly Black, but he called what was happening “jungle ball.” And I remember thinking, “Yeah, this is a line that I am refusing to let be crossed.” I walked off the basketball team and didn’t play for the rest of my junior year. I came back to the team the next year when there was a different coach.

Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, GLSEN
Melanie Willingham-Jaggers

So for me, I would say the formative parts of my identity as a young person was really around my Blackness. It was that understanding of myself and it was that part of my identity, when I embraced that, that gave me a backbone, that gave me a voice and it gave me a sense of a collective that I was part of, that was bigger than me. So, in that moment, to your question, did the gender and sexuality stuff keep coming up? I’m not sure if it did, because there was so much noise in particular around the racism and the racialized experiences that I was having in the nineties in the LA area.

MW: Did things change when you reached college? Did your queer identity come more into focus?

WILLINGHAM-JAGGERS: What I would say, just to put a finer point on high school and college, just generally, is that I really gave being straight the “old college try.” I really did not leave any rock unturned.

I was in a pretty long-term unhealthy relationship with a boy that really limited my social experiences. I was really trying my hardest to put on what it meant to be a girl, what it meant to be a girl with a boyfriend, and what I thought was expected of me in that relationship.

MW: When did you eventually come out?

WILLINGHAM-JAGGERS: I came out around 22 or 23. But the thing that was hard for me was coming out to myself. I remember thinking at the time, “What am I doing? Let me just be happy. This is far too much work. I’m not having fun. What would it mean for me to be open to loving and accepting every part of myself and being in that discovery with myself?” That was really the moment where I was able to come out to myself.

So there was a way in which the biggest hurdle for me to clear was my own self-acceptance and love. As a person who was socialized as a girl, a woman, as a person who is Black in this country, so much of what we are taught is that what the world tells you about yourself is true, and that there’s inherently a deficit to be filled, something wrong to be corrected. And once I was able to clear that hurdle for myself, I was able to say, “What if I am worthy of love? What if who I am is exactly okay and who I should be?” It was really unlocking that idea that I think of as central to my coming out. And once I did that, coming out to the rest of the world was easy.

MW: You’re taking control of GLSEN at a time of growing backlash to LGBTQ issues and students in schools. We’re now seeing efforts to ban books with LGBTQ content, parental rights bills that attack identity, bans on “woke” ideology or “critical race theory.” What role does GLSEN play in pushing back against those efforts?

WILLINGHAM-JAGGERS: I think that the backlash we are experiencing is quite serious. It is virulent, and violent and hateful in a way that I think is rightfully surprising to many of us, but it’s not new. So that’s part one. Part two is that, and this is not me attempting to minimize or paint with too shiny a sheen or silver lining, but just to note that the backlash represents a response to a critical and necessary and important advancement, in terms of our understanding society-wide of the value of, the contributions of, the validity of, and the presence of a deeply diverse society.

In 1990, when GLSEN was created, it was illegal to be gay in more than half of the country. You couldn’t be gay and out at work and not rightfully fear repercussions. That reality just changed last year with the Bostock decision out of the Supreme Court. So the way that the world has moved forward and shifted is very, very important. I think it reflects a general sense of societal acceptance and a welcoming of more people, with more people’s stories and experiences being seen as valid and part of our larger American story. At the same time, I don’t think we can just expect that the “moral arc of the universe bends toward justice,” so we can keep doing what we’re doing and things will be fine.

I want to draw a circle around all the issues you’ve mentioned as being part of the same problem, and what it’s seeking to do. We are seeing attempts to ban books that have queer or trans characters from libraries. We’re seeing people try to take over not only school boards, but library boards so they can decide what books are present even outside of school. This is deeply alarming and dystopian. And I don’t mean to be hyperbolic about that. It’s just this is really the worst-case scenario for what a multiracial, vibrant democracy can and should expect from itself.

We’re also seeing that the so-called “anti-CRT” movement is really on the march. First, this is about taking control of education and literally refusing to teach children the truth about what has happened before they got here, who people are around them, themselves included, people’s families, people’s communities, and it’s refusing to paint an accurate picture of this world that we are all living in.

It’s seeking to set these young people aside, kind of take them off the playing field in terms of what the other side calls a “culture war,” which is really about what does it mean when we assert — and it is not a matter of contention — that queer people exist, that trans and non-binary people exist, that Black folks and other people of color have contributed meaningfully to our society and that there’s still work to do. Removing that connection to that ongoing work is a desire to take these young people out of being pulled into a social movement, to being pulled into an inclusive vision of what this country can and should be for all of us.

Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, GLSEN
Melanie Willingham-Jaggers

Second, we know what young people need in order to be successful in school. It’s not a mystery. It’s not like someone is in a kitchen with a secret sauce and sometimes they come back with a positive result. We know that it takes supportive educators. We know that it takes inclusive curricula, where all learners are reflected in the things that they’re learning. We know that it takes supportive school policies so if something bad happens to a kid, they can rely on the laws, on the rules that govern that learning community, to say, “Hey, something bad happened to me, and I matter, so help me rectify it.” So that’s about educators. It’s about policies. It’s about inclusive curricula. It’s about supporting student-led GSAs.

When we’re talking about removing curriculum that reflects the lived reality of young people as students, young people as members of families, young people as members of communities, what we’re doing is making education less effective. We’re foreclosing on the opportunity that educational success and attainment provides for a young person, because it becomes precipitously less likely that they will succeed in school if they can’t see their lived reality reflected in what they’re learning.

MW: Defenders of these bills or actions will often cast their proposals as reasonable, and imply that talking about LGBTQ topics is a form of grooming or “normalizing sin” or an attack on people’s religious beliefs. How do you respond to those assertions?

WILLINGHAM-JAGGERS: None of these are good-faith arguments. None of this is actually about children. None of this is really about anything that they say it’s about in terms of faith and safety and parental control, et cetera. It really is about the very few conservative voices that have a clear picture in their heads of what they want society to look like, who they want to have a say, [and what] they want other people to believe. This is a white supremacist vision. This is a patriarchal vision. It is a Christian supremacist vision. It’s not really about faith, but control. It’s a cynical view of parenting, and it’s a bad-faith argument on its face and throughout. There’s lots of things that they will say, and none of them I think are worth a response, because they’re not serious concerns.

Additionally, many of the straw-man arguments are like, “You want to teach three-year-olds about gender-affirming medical care.” And we’re like, “No.” And here’s why educators are really valuable, because they understand learning. They understand what is age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate to teach. And that’s why teachers teach, and that’s why lawmakers should be making laws that protect people, that don’t try to do other people’s jobs for them.

This all goes back to a radical idea that educators ought to do the job of figuring out what is age-appropriate, what is developmentally appropriate, and what belongs in a classroom, not legislators looking to change society in a way that is really about limiting what people learn. These efforts to censor are not about education, they’re about control. It’s not about education, it’s about anti-democratic desires and power grabs. It’s about constraining educators and erasing entire populations that exist and have always existed in our society from being a thing that young people learn about. I think that when we engage with the argument that the other side is making, it runs out of steam pretty quickly, once we’re grounded in what the reality is and what’s actually happening.

MW: How do you go about clarifying that reality? For instance, when we talk about bans on “sexually explicit” content, whose definition are we using? Will it end up being a situation where any mention of LGBTQ will be considered “sexually explicit” and used as evidence to allow parents to sue school districts? There seems to be this effort to intimidate people into silence.

WILLINGHAM-JAGGERS: You’ve named it exactly for what it is. It is a campaign of fear and intimidation that has gained momentum. And so people are afraid of being told that they are doing a thing that may not exist or may not be happening, or may not even be clearly defined, but it doesn’t matter. The approach will be, “Let me just get out of the crosshairs.” This is repression. The purpose of this is fear and intimidation. It’s also a deeply cynical understanding of what education should provide at large.

Now here’s what I’ll say about this idea of sexually explicit material or content. No one is making an argument that sexually explicit material or content ought to be made available or even assigned to young people.

However, let’s understand a little bit about what folks are calling “sexually explicit” content. If there’s a story for an eighth grader, for example, where they’re reading a story that has a trans character in it, I’ve seen a critique of a piece of literature being called sexually explicit because it described a young person talking about themselves and their body and who they are. A description of who someone is is not sexually explicit material. And yet, because the other side is engaged in bad-faith arguments, we actually aren’t going to agree upon a definition, because the purpose is not to reach a shared understanding of what this all means.

It really just is a red herring around, “I don’t like it. I don’t want my kids to read it, because it advances a vision of the world that is rapidly changing. And it expands upon my worldview, where I think that only certain people should be seen or recognized or understood as validly participating in our society. And I don’t like it.”

I don’t know of a single educator or a single parent on either side of this issue that would make the argument for sexually explicit materials. I certainly would not. However, because the definition is so unagreed on, and really refers to anything that the other side does not agree with, or that represents people with dignity that they don’t think should exist or be included, that’s the part that I and we, at GLSEN, reject.

MW: What can schools do to help LGBTQ students feel safe in school?

WILLINGHAM-JAGGERS: There’s two parts to this. There’s taking away the bad stuff: the harassment, the assault, the exclusion, the erasure, making people feel small or invisible or like they don’t matter.

There’s also the good stuff. Think back to your own personal experience. When you’ve developed, when you’ve learned, what’s been present? Love has been present. Safety has been present. Affirmation has been present. And so if we go back to the original premise of what education should do, what we owe our children as we are educating them, it really is based around the idea of what would happen if every single learner had what they needed to learn and be successful the moment they walked into a school building.

I think some people call this universal design, but when you think about sidewalks and the curb cuts or cutouts in sidewalks, that’s a relatively new invention. It first came after World War I, where many people had experienced injuries due to being injured in battle. Originally, those cutouts were made for folks who might have an amputated limb or who might need some support getting up on the curb.

Yet, the argument we didn’t have at the time was, “Well, what about the people who don’t need it? What are we taking away from them by putting sidewalk cutouts for just a small minority who need it?” And when we made those sidewalk cutouts, we discovered that folks who were injured in the war could use them, but so could people who are pushing baby carriages, and elders, who can use it much more easily to get across the street more safely. When we see a population of folks who need a certain level of support in order to fully participate, when we give that support to them, it’s not only that targeted group that benefits, but it’s so many other people around them.

In the same way, it’s not just queer kids that benefit from having queer-inclusive curriculum, not just Black kids that benefit from having Black-inclusive curriculum or not just indigenous kids, not just kids with disabilities who benefit from seeing themselves in curriculum. It’s everyone else, too. It’s the cisgender white kid in the suburbs who gets to learn about a story and see the humanity of a non-binary tween that looks just like them or that’s similar to them in every other way except for one.

This is a fight over efforts to narrow the scope of what children understand as “normal,” as belonging, and as worthy. So we cannot give up this terrain. We cannot give up the way in which our young people need to see themselves and each other as worthy. We can’t bow out of that fight. This is one that we’ve got to take to the mat.

For more information on GLSEN’s efforts to promote inclusive schools, visit www.glsen.org.

Follow GLSEN on Twitter at @glsen. Follow Melanie Willingham-Jaggers on Twitter at @themelster.

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