Election 2024

Trans youth matter. Melanie Willingham-Jaggers needs us to fight harder for their future.

Melanie Willingham-Jaggers
Melanie Willingham-Jaggers. Photo illustration by Kyle Neal.

Before taking the helm at one of the nation’s most influential education advocacy organizations for LGBTQ+ youth, GLSEN Executive Director Melanie Willingham-Jaggers was a 17-year-old kid watching lawmakers endanger the lives of her peers.

Too young to vote in the year 2000, they felt powerless as adults in California made life-altering decisions about the future of their generation with the passage of Proposition 21. The law made trying young people as adults easier and increased penalties for youth charged with certain crimes like carjacking and home-invasion robbery. As feared by the droves of protestors who took to the streets, it has disproportionately been used against Black and brown youth.

But Willingham-Jaggers points out that Prop 21 also mobilized hordes of angry young people who had never been involved in political organizing before. “That was the movement that I joined,” they tell LGBTQ Nation. “That was how I came into this work.”

The ruthless attacks on queer young people today are similarly galvanizing, they say.

“We are in a catalyzing moment, and my deepest hope … is that our people are coming out the other side of this feeling more connected to their power, more connected to each other.”

GLSEN at NYC Pride
GLSEN at NYC Pride. Photo courtesy of GLSEN.

Today’s LGBTQ+ youth have been forced to repeatedly watch adults they’ve never met debate the worth and legitimacy of their very existence. Rather than pouring themselves into friends, family, school, and fun, their delicate, still-developing minds have had to try to make sense of why the people who are supposed to keep them safe have instead declared them a danger to our nation.

In the first months of 2024 alone, lawmakers across the country have proposed nearly 175 anti-LGBTQ+ bills explicitly targeting students and educators. In 2023, over 30 such bills became law. Through curriculum bans, bathroom bills, gender-affirming care bans, sports bans, forced outing policies, and book bans, legislators have repeatedly given queer kids the message that they are, at best, an inconvenience — and, at worst, detrimental to society.

According to Willingham-Jaggers, the American education system is “in shambles.” Not just for queer folks but for everyone. 

“Even if we lose this battle, how do we win the war?”

GLSEN executive director Melanie Willingham-Jaggers

Indeed, it seems the system has hit a boiling point. Vindictive, unqualified extremists like Libs of TikTok’s Chaya Raichik are obtaining high-powered roles and shaping what young people are allowed to learn, schools are underfunded and overcrowded, and a coalition of policymakers is working to weaken public school systems in favor of charter and religious schools that would leave marginalized groups like LGBTQ+ people behind.

Evangelical lawyer Michael Farris is considered a key leader in this plot and was caught admitting to his involvement in a coordinated effort to defund public schools by encouraging parents to file lawsuits accusing schools of violating their rights by teaching students about racial and LGBTQ+ issues. These lawsuits could eventually secure a U.S. Supreme Court victory that would redirect billions of taxpayer funds to religious homeschools and charter schools. Farris declared he wanted to “take down the education system as we know it today.”

Still, Willingham-Jaggers has hope.

“The thing that I continue to turn back to … is the way in which our losses can bring us closer together. Our defeats can get us connected with each other and understanding our power. Even if we lose this battle, how do we win the war?”

The queer state of education

GLSEN executive director Melanie Willingham-Jaggers
Haus Des [email protected] “We know that it’s a supportive educator that makes all the difference for a young person in school,” says GLSEN executive director Melanie Willingham-Jaggers. Photo courtesy of GLSEN.

“I can’t imagine if I were 17 in this moment,” Willingham-Jaggers laments, explaining that not only are lawmakers criminalizing the identities of queer youth, but they are also criminalizing the adults who want to help them.

Laws in several states have made it a crime for teachers, parents, and doctors to support queer young people adequately. Kids in these states can no longer learn about LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom or come out to trusted teachers without fearing their parents will be called. Meanwhile, doctors across the country have become powerless to provide young people with lifesaving medical care

“They’re coming at those supports with laser-like precision to destroy them,” Willingham-Jaggers says. 

“We know that it’s a supportive educator that makes all the difference for a young person in school, particularly when they may not feel supported at home … We know that a curriculum that reflects the young person’s experience and the communities they come from with respect and truth helps them stay engaged. We also know that learning about people from communities that you aren’t a part of — when they are described with respect and based in fact — helps you as a person not in that community feel empathy and be ready to build a future.”

Willingham-Jaggers points to GLSEN’s 2021 National School Climate Survey, which found that students in schools with an LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum were less likely to hear homophobic remarks. Nearly half (48.7%) of LGBTQ+ students in schools with inclusive curricula reported hearing “gay” used in a negative way “often or frequently,” compared to 72% of students with non-inclusive curricula. Students exposed to inclusive curricula were also far less likely to hear slurs like “f*g” or “dyke” spoken at school. 

What’s more, the survey found that only 16.3% of LGBTQ+ students had been taught positive representations about LGBTQ+ history, people, or events in school. 

Education, emphasized Willingham-Jaggers, is the “cornerstone of our democracy,” and the anti-LGBTQ+ forces working to bring down our democratic institutions know it. 

“We know that policies that prevent victimization are critical. We know that young people when they get together and they’re able to practice leadership, it helps them. It helps them feel empowered, and it helps them [envision] the future we want to see and build together. That’s critical in a democratic society … That is exactly what is being attacked right now by the myriad bills that are coming out across the country.”

GLSEN’s National Student Council for high school students is one such program seeking to empower youth with advocacy and leadership skills. Council members work with GLSEN to provide feedback on the organization’s programming and strategies. 

But Willingham-Jaggers says it’s local Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) that are on the front lines in providing dynamic leadership opportunities for queer young people. “Student organizers are the nation’s most powerful base for creating change,” they said, adding that “along with providing space to organize, GSAs are spaces where students can receive support, socialize, and find community together.”

But among the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ hate, the fate of these groups hangs in the balance. 

“Amid this challenging climate, the number of GSAs has dwindled,” Willingham-Jaggers says. According to the most recent National School Climate Survey, less than 40% of LGBTQ+ students reported having an active GSA at their school, compared to nearly 62% in 2019.

Willingham-Jaggers explains that when support systems like these are dismantled, young people emerge into the world “ill-prepared.”

“They are afraid of people who are different than them. They don’t know how to deal with complexity. They are fearful and angry and violent. [This moment is] an attempt to foreclose on the democratic future of our country in a moment when our country is browner and queerer and becoming even more so every single day.”

The ‘death rattle of white supremacy’

GLSEN Day of Silence, Philadelphia.
GLSEN Day of Silence, Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of GLSEN.

“We are looking at the queerest, most diverse generations coming up … That is freaking these people out,” Willingham-Jaggers says, referring to the anti-democratic and anti-LGBTQ+ coalitions working to prop up white supremacy and dismantle the rights of marginalized groups. 

Indeed, a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that 28% of Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ+, a substantial jump from the generations above them. The study also found that more members of Gen Z identify as queer than as Republican or white Christian. 

In response to the survey, trans activist and Harvard Law Cyberlaw Clinic instructor Alejandra Caraballo declared in a now-deleted X post that “It’s over for white Christian male hegemony in the United States and time for an egalitarian and equitable society.” 

Willingham-Jaggers says we are currently witnessing a backlash to this growing potential for equity, suggesting it’s a “last ditch effort, the kind of death rattle of white supremacy” as extremists make “the hardest push they can for a fascist future for our country.”

But even if the anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment stems from the progress the equality movement has made, Willingham-Jaggers urges extreme caution in assuming it’s any indication queer folks have won. Yes, history shows that with progress comes backlash, but the only way to maintain that progress is to keep fighting.

“When you are about to win, your opposition is going to come out with everything they have; they’re going to try to stop you. And even if you have a good shot at winning, the game is still being played. You haven’t won until the buzzer goes off.”

What’s happening now, they add, is not a sign we are winning. Rather, it’s a sign we have a chance.

Shrinking who counts

Debates about LGBTQ+ youth have long dominated state houses, news cycles, and school board meetings, but what is it like to be a queer young person navigating the school hallways each day? To watch your principal tear down the Pride flag hanging in your classroom? To sit on the sidelines while your peers play the sports you love? What does it feel like to believe no one sees you, gets you, or cares?

According to Willingham-Jaggers, the current climate risks a generation of LGBTQ+ youth being taught to feel worthless. 

The Trevor Project’s 2023 U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People found that nearly one in three LGBTQ+ youth say they experience poor mental health most of the time or always as a result of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. 

“I think that’s the most insidious part of all of this — that it’s an attack on kids to make them think we are all collectively better off without them,” Willingham-Jaggers continued. “And that could not be farther from the truth.”

Meanwhile, cishet youth are learning to feel superior, and the consequences have been catastrophic. 

On February 7, 2024, nonbinary high school sophomore Nex Benedict was beaten by students in the bathroom of their Oklahoma high school. The next day, Benedict was rushed to the hospital, where they later died. While the case remains open, many have blamed the tragedy on the inflammatory anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs perpetuated by Oklahoma’s top education official, Ryan Walters.

“My heart breaks for both the young people who won’t make it by design — the folks who aren’t going to be able to overcome the insurmountable barriers put in their way — and the brilliance that we will lose as a result of this hateful ideology being made into law,” Willingham-Jaggers said. 

Adults, they continue, have a larger capacity to understand the context of this onslaught of hate – that it’s coming from a place of fear because more folks are gaining the power, confidence, and language to declare who they are. But youth often don’t have the life experience to see the bigger picture.

“Young people of all gender identities and expressions are new here to planet Earth,” they say. “They’re new to the human experience. They look to people who are older than them, who have power over them or have power in systems, to help them understand what’s going on. And they’re not getting good feedback.”

“You and I can look back at the arc of history and say, ‘OK, well, progress comes with backlash. And man, this is tough right now. But we’ve got to keep going, keep hope alive.’ But young people have been here for less than 20 years. They don’t know how it was. They don’t know if they will survive. They don’t know if it will get better from here or worse.”

“These legislators [would] rather have a dead kid than a queer adult.”

GLSEN executive director Melanie Willingham-Jaggers

And with the banning of supportive actions from parents, teachers, and doctors, kids are left to work through all of this alone.

“These legislators — [Republican Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis, [Republican Texas Gov. Greg] Abbott, pick a name out of a hat of the people who are leading state houses and governor’s mansions across the country — they’d rather have a dead kid than a trans adult. They’d rather have a dead kid than a queer adult. They’d rather have a dead kid than an educated, empowered, empathetic, connected, powerful adult.

They understand that their vision of the future for this country is one that is set in the past and seeks to exclude people in a way that we have, as a society and as a world, moved beyond thinking is legitimate. And they know the only way to win is by shrinking who gets to vote, shrinking who gets to count, and not listening to the people when they are making demands of what their leaders ought to be doing.”

In response to this legislative crusade, GLSEN is concentrating its 2024 efforts on calls to action for youth voting and civic engagement. The organization will also launch its latest survey, which assesses the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth in schools. The survey explores both the challenges faced by queer youth as well as possible avenues toward more inclusive learning environments.

The organization also hosts an Intentional Inclusion Professional Development Series for schools and other youth-serving agencies. 

“This series prioritizes intersectionality and places a strong emphasis on promoting racial, gender, and disability justice,” Willingham-Jaggers explained. They recalled one teacher in 2022 who called the experience “one of the most meaningful PDs I have attended in a long time.” 

Election 2024 and the nationalization of hate

Anti LGBTQ+ protest in Glendale, California
Getty Images Children were among anti-LGBTQ+ demonstrators holding signs outside a Glendale Unified School District (GUSD) Board of Education meeting on June 20, 2023, in Glendale, California. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

Until now, most of the laws targeting LGBTQ+ youth have lived at the state level, but Willingham-Jaggers fears that if the GOP wins the White House and more power in Congress, the legislation will be nationalized.

“They are going to infuse our systems and our laws with the hate that they are fostering and testing out at the local levels, which is catastrophic for our communities and our young people’s ability to see themselves and participate in this American democracy that we continue to try to build and expand for all of us.”

Willingham-Jaggers calls those fighting for democratic principles and LGBTQ+ rights the “freedom side,” where folks want to expand access to dignity, power, and inclusion. The other side, they say, is focused on “shrinking who counts.”

So what happens this time around if the “freedom side” doesn’t come out on top?

“It’s not enough for us to be included and written into a system that’s harmed so many of us for so long. We actually might need a new system.”

GLSEN executive director Melanie Willingham-Jaggers

“We will be forced to listen to the folks who have been saying for a long time [that] we’ve not been pushing hard enough. Our vision has not been big enough,” Willingham-Jaggers says. “It’s not enough for us to be included and written into a system that’s harmed so many of us for so long. We actually might need a new system.”

The nuts and bolts of what that system would look like aren’t entirely clear. Still, for Willingham-Jaggers, it means, at a minimum, ensuring education is “a transformative and liberatory experience” that “includes, affirms, and empowers all students” and lays the groundwork “for youth to become full, informed, and active participants in our democracy.” They emphasize a system that will not tolerate “failing, pushing out, or excluding any child.”

But more than winning or losing, their biggest fear is that the inevitable collective trauma of election season will sow division among those on the “freedom side.”

“The terrible thing about where we are in our current political moment is that the people who are infusing chaos and abusing discord have a much bigger platform. It’s so much easier to tear down than it is to build, particularly in moments when we are all under stress, and none of us have what we need to thrive.” 

“The danger that we are facing in this moment is the danger of hopelessness, the danger of division, the danger of losing our way from each other. And if we do that, I don’t care who wins the White House. They win, right?”

What you can do if you can’t go viral

GLSEN, Omaha
GLSEN, Omaha. Photo courtesy of GLSEN.

It’s easy to feel powerless, like there’s nothing you can do if you can’t make a viral speech at a school board meeting or speak passionately before a legislative committee. But in addition to voting, Willingham-Jaggers says some of the most impactful work we can do is build coalitions.

“Get with people. Who are you in community with? Who are you accountable to? How are you building together something that is going to be durable, that can be more than just you and this other guy who totally gets what you’re talking about? How are you building the circle so that more people can join it, and so we can build something durable enough to win?”

In the end, it’s not about hope, and it’s not about optimism: It’s about doing the work and doing it together.

“I run an organization full of people who literally think we can change the world, and you should count me among them,” says Willingham-Jaggers. “We see what’s available to us if we just buckle down and give it all we’ve got. Here’s the truth: Nothing has ever happened in history because one person did it by themselves.”

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