Creating Supportive, Inclusive Spaces for LGBTQ+ Students

with Melanie Willingham-Jaggers of GLSEN

Research from GLSEN indicates that 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ students see positive representation of the community in their curriculum, nearly 9 in 10 experience harassment, and almost one-third miss school because they feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

Host Tetiana Anderson is joined by Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, GLSEN’s first Black and nonbinary Executive Director, for a conversation about efforts to ensure that all LGBTQ+ students have the support they need for success in school and beyond — and Willingham-Jaggers’ vision for GLSEN’s future.

Posted on:

May 27, 2022

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: Over the past few decades, acceptance for and inclusion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has grown tremendously. Great strides have been made towards equality and inclusion in the workplace, healthcare and legislation. But there's still more work to be done. And one subgroup of the LGBT community continues to face unique challenges. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. LGBT individuals, specifically youth, experience high levels of discrimination and stress, especially in school. These issues are heightened for LGBT students of color. They experience racism in addition to discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. And joining me to talk about all of this is Melanie Willingham-Jaggers. She's the executive director of GLSEN. And, Melanie, thank you so much for being here.

Willingham-Jaggers: Thanks for having me.

Anderson: So you're leading an organization that's been around for about a quarter century. The work centers around creating safe, supportive, inclusive spaces for education. So that makes me wonder what kind of challenges the students that you serve and their educators are dealing with today.

Willingham-Jaggers: Sure. Well, GLSEN has been around since 1990, and we've been doing research since 1999. So we've got a beautiful, gigantic data set on self-reported data that young people tell us about their own experiences in schools. And what they've told us is that bullying and harassment continue to go down, right, in the first about 15, 16 years of this century. However, they have now reached stubborn levels and they are -- young people are now facing increased levels of bullying and harassment in the last number of years.

Anderson: It feels like with the fast evolution of how identity is seen and categorized, that there's sometimes a lack of understanding about all the terminology. So people have likely heard LGBTQ+, right? So we know lesbian, gay and bisexual. But tell us a little bit more about the T, the Q and the plus.

Willingham-Jaggers: Absolutely. Well, first of all, shout-out to the young people who continue to help us grow and expand our language, our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. So there are a couple of things pushed into our acronym, right? There's sexual orientation and there's gender identity. Lesbian, gay, bisexual refers to someone's sexual orientation. Transgender, non-binary, et cetera refer to people's sexual gender identity. And so, as we know, transgender folks are folks who are assigned one sex at birth and then have come to grow into a different gender identity across the course of their life. Non-binary is a newish term, and I identify as non-binary. Non-binary refers to folks who are maybe neither male or female or maybe something else. Maybe somewhere in the middle of that binary or off the binary, somewhere else in the world or in creation. So it really is this idea that there is something between or beyond the genders, male and female, as we understand them.

Anderson: And I'm hoping you can share some examples of other non-binary people of note because there's lots of faces out there that we might recognize, right?

Willingham-Jaggers: Sure. Yeah. Well, Janelle Monáe actually recently came out as non-binary and Indya Moore also identifies as non-binary. There's a bunch of -- There's a bunch of us out there.

Anderson: So I have to say congratulations to you because you are the first non-binary and first black director that the organization has had. How does who you are inform your priorities for the organization and what are those as you look to the future?

Willingham-Jaggers: Sure. Who I am absolutely forms my priorities and how I approach this work. I'm a person who walks through this world as a black person, as a queer person, and as a non-binary woman. And that, to me, helps me understand that it's the people who have been traditionally marginalized or have been traditionally left out of the conversations that have so much to offer for our vision for the future. My priorities for the next little bit at GLSEN really center around racial, gender and disability justice and making sure those outcomes are central to the outcomes of our education system. We put young people in our education system when they're five years old, right? We graduate them when they are 18. Our hope, my hope, our goal is that these young people come out more whole, more themselves and connected to those around them, ready to participate in a vibrant and multiracial democracy. So our work at GLSEN in our next 30 years is really to shape our education system, to make sure that every learner has exactly what they need the moment they walk into schools and that no one is left out and no one is left behind.

Anderson: And, Melanie, if people want to find out more about the organization, where should they go?

Willingham-Jaggers: Yeah. Please come to glsen.org to find out more. We've got over 40 chapters across the country, so find a chapter near you and plug in. And if there's not a chapter near you, reach out to us. We'd be happy to help you found a chapter. So that's glsen.org.

Anderson: Melanie Willingham-Jaggers of GLSEN, thank you for being here.

Willingham-Jaggers: Thanks so much.

Anderson: And thanks to you for joining as well. As always, for more great conversations with leaders around the community and around the country, just log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Andersen.

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