by Zachary Jarrell

February 6, 2022

This article was published in the Los Angeles Blade.

She’s experienced both the “superpower of invisibility” & the “superpower of being deeply connected to those who are marginalized”

NEW YORK – It’s 1986 in the rust belt city of Cincinnati, Ohio. Two kids, Melanie and David, are at their aunt’s house being cared for while both of their single mothers are away – Melanie’s mom is traveling for work and David’s caught in “street life” and medicating her heartbreak.

A few years later, Melanie and David are in the fourth grade and starting to have trouble academically and behaviorally. Melanie’s mom jumps in to ask questions and take action. Meanwhile, David’s mom doesn’t have the energy or know-how to advocate for him, and his teachers assume that he’s not trying.

By sixth grade, Melanie had gotten tested to get to the bottom of her learning challenges, and, though things were still hard, she had the support of her mom. David had never gotten the support he needed for his learning difficulties, labeled as “behavioral problems.” He’s receiving punishment instead of help. Before the year is out, he’s dropped out of school for good.

Now, Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, fresh off being named the first Black and nonbinary executive director of national LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLSEN, tells the Los Angeles Blade that story while her cousin, David, has spent the time they spent in school studying in and out of incarceration.

“It really is because of the opportunity, and that window of opportunity being missed for him,” Melanie Willingham-Jaggers told the Blade in an interview.

This story is the main motivator for the new leader of GLSEN. “I’m not different, and I’m not special,” said Willingham-Jaggers. “I do this work in service of those people because I know that given what I’ve been given – access to the support and opportunity that I have – it’s my job to make the most of it.”

After serving as the group’s interim executive director last year, GLSEN named Willingham-Jaggers as its new executive director last week – a historic pick hailed by LGBTQ+ advocates across the nation.

“I think I’m the right pick; I think I’m the right leader for GLSEN; I think this is the right moment for a leader like me to act,” they said.

Willingham-Jaggers takes the helm of GLSEN – which advocates for making K-12 schools safer, more affirming and inclusive environments for LGBTQ youth – at point in the United States when schools have become a battleground for political debate over Trans inclusion in sports and LGBTQ-themed books some consider “inappropriate,” or even “pornographic.”

According to the Movement Advancement Project, 10 states already have laws in place that bar trans students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity.

In 2022, so far, 22 bills seeking to ban Trans youth from sports have been introduced in state legislatures across the country, according to Freedom for All Americans. On Thursday, South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem signed the first anti-trans bill of 2022 into law, effectively keeping Trans students, especially Trans women and girls, from playing on women’s and girl’s sports teams.

In addition, conservatives have started a nationwide effort to keep books dealing with racism and LGBTQ+ issues off the shelves of school libraries.

Last December, the American Library Association (ALA) announced that it had documented 155 separate incidents of efforts to remove or ban books by or about LGBTQ+ and Black people since June 2021. Officials in one Virginia district went as far as to say they want to see books “burn.”

“It’s pretty shitty out there,” said Willingham-Jaggers, adding: “It is hard to put into words how terrible it is right now for queer kids.”

According to Willingham-Jaggers, even legislative efforts that don’t directly affect LGBTQ+ kids, like anti-Critical Race Theory (CRT) bans, end up hurting queer children and kids as a whole. “There is a move by political extremists to prevent our young people from learning the truth,” they said.

Bans of CRT – a college-level examination of the intersection of race and law that has become a hot button issue for Republicans – have also swept the nation in recent months.

The politicians introducing and passing this legislation are proud to highlight the bills. Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott stated, “Now Texas has the toughest anti-CRT protections in the nation,” celebrating the state’s CRT ban.

But opponents to such bans call attacks on CRT “gross exaggerations of the theoretical framework.”

“Rather than run from the issue of racism in America, we should confront it head on,” Rayshawn Ray wrote for the Brookings Institution, a progressive nonprofit public policy organization.

According to an interactive map from Education Week, 14 states have enacted CRT bans, while another 23 states have at least considered such bans.

Intersectionality, how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different levels of discrimination and privilege, is a big part of Willingham-Jaggers’ focus moving forward. “No one’s out here with only a queer identity, right?” they said.

National LGBTQ+ organizations have been criticized at points in the past by some who think that their advocacy has focused too much on white, cisgender, LGB people – largely leaving people of color and Trans people out of the conversation. In fact, a 2017 report from the Building Movement Project, which provides research and training tools to help nonprofits better connect with the communities they serve, found that LGBTQ+ people of color face more challenges compared to white people or straight people of color, even in LGBTQ-focused organizations.

Though many LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have made strides to become more inclusive, including speaking out against police brutality during widespread Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, some continue to call them out.

On Thursday, Alphonso David – the former president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) who was terminated by the board after reports that he was involved in the New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo scandal – filed a lawsuit against the group, arguing he was fired as a result of racial discrimination.

The lawsuit said the HRC’s workplace was one where “non-white staffers were marginalized, tokenized, and denied advancement to high-level positions.” David was the group’s first Black president.

However, Joni Madison, interim president of the HRC, said David’s lawsuit was “riddled with untruths.”

In a 2020 press release following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to extend Civil Rights Act protections to LGBTQ+ in employment, GLSEN’s former Executive Director Eliza Byard referenced an “internal process of transformation” to “center the leadership of Black and other POC leaders on the Board, staff, and across the network, and to become an anti-racist organization.”

“Because of the work we did not do in the past, and because of the pace of our current efforts, we have caused harm. I apologize,” she said.

Willingham-Jaggers stepped in as interim executive director following Byard’s resignation in 2021.

“Melanie’s expertise as an organizer and deep connections across movements are invaluable for the next chapter of GLSEN’s work,” said Byard of Willingham-Jaggers. “The world of K-12 schools has been turned completely upside-down over the past few years, and Melanie’s vision and experience will provide the essential ingredients of new strategies for a new time.”

Willingham-Jaggers knows that their work is cut out for them but believes they are exactly the type of leader that GLSEN needs right now.

“I don’t do the work that I do, because of my identities,” they said. “But my identity has formed the work that I do.”

As a Black woman and nonbinary, gender expansive queer person, Willingham-Jaggers said she has experienced both the “superpower of invisibility” and the “superpower of being deeply connected to those who are marginalized.”

“The leader that I am is really informed by and led by those margins,” they said.

Willingham-Jaggers didn’t want to be “too specific” about their plans to address anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and other rules aimed at schools. But they did say that “affirmation” is an essential part of their work as an advocate for LGBTQ+ kids.

“People grow in the light of love,” they said.