Eliza Byard fights so that every LGBTQ student can be themselves

[Original Post] Eliza Byard, executive director of the advocacy organization GLSEN, has been fighting for more than 15 years to keep LGBTQ kids safe in school. Image: GLSEN By Rebecca Ruiz2019-06-13 13:00:00 UTC Every day of Pride Month, Mashable will be sharing illuminating conversations with members of the LGBTQ community who are making history right […]

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[Original Post]
Eliza Byard, executive director of the advocacy organization GLSEN, has been fighting for more than 15 years to keep LGBTQ kids safe in school.

Image: GLSEN

Every day of Pride Month, Mashable will be sharing illuminating conversations with members of the LGBTQ community who are making history right now.


Eliza Byard has led GLSEN, a nonprofit organization that aims to end LGBTQ bullying and create inclusive schools, for the past decade. In that role, she’s been a champion of students who are discriminated against because of their sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. 

GLSEN (pronounced “glisten”) engages LGBTQ students, as well as their allies, educators, and parents, in the work of transforming school climate. The organization also advocates for students on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures, and Byard has been a vocal critic of Trump administration officials whose policies she feels threaten the safety of LGBTQ youth at school. 

Whether she’s taking on Trump via Twitter or lobbying Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in person, Byard always drives home her message: LGBTQ youth deserve to thrive at school. 

Mashable spoke to Byard about progress in changing school climate, recent setbacks, and how adults can better listen to LGBTQ youth. 

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Mashable: You’ve been with GLSEN for more than 15 years. You’ve seen things change radically over time in terms of how lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, and queer students are treated in schools. What stands out to you about the progress we’ve made? 

EB: Time and time again, I have seen youth advocacy make the impossible possible. There’s so many ways that we have seen fundamental shifts in the K through 12 school environment for LGBTQ students. In generation after generation of students, youth themselves are really leading the way. It’s been an incredible source of energy and hope over long periods of time. 

Some things that stand out to me? The very basic fact that about 78 percent of students in the United States know somebody LGBTQ in their school [Editors’ note: Research published by GLSEN in 2016 found that 82 percent of the middle and high school survey respondents reported knowing someone who is LGBT.] In the general student population, everybody knows somebody. There’s a visibility that was very hard to imagine all those years ago. 

It’s really only 15 years ago that being gay was definitively legalized in this country by the Supreme Court. So [we’re] in a situation where not only are LGBTQ youth a visible part of just about every single school community in the country, but there is now basically a professional norm in education that it is teachers’ jobs to support and affirm the LGBTQ youth that they work with. 

For many, many years, GLSEN worked to get questions that make LGBTQ youth visible in the national Youth Risk Behavior [Surveillance] survey and other official government data collection efforts in order to really ensure that LGBTQ youth are part of all decision-making and can’t be ignored as we make policy and design programs for public health and education. Starting in 2015, we had the first question asking students, on an official government survey, whether they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, or not sure.

When that question was asked in 2017, in the midst of the Trump era, in the midst of the crackdown on transgender youth that began day one in the DeVos Department of Education, 15 percent of the U.S. high school population identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or not sure. An estimated 2 percent identified as transgender. The numbers of students we’re talking about far exceed what any prior estimates have been. That was just one of the many waves that we see — wave after wave of students standing up for themselves and stepping up to make sure that their communities know that they’re there and respond to their needs. It’s incredibly inspiring. 

Mashable: You’ve also been at the forefront, voicing concern that some of that progress that you’ve just described has been reversed in the past few years. What are you most worried about when it comes to school climate now for LGBTQ children? 

EB: What I find incredibly upsetting is that all of the steps that the administration is taking are actively harming young people. They are making choices to break things that work and to hurt youth. Secretary DeVos was directly asked that question in a Congressional hearing: Did you know that when you took this step, it would cause harm to transgender youth? And she said yes. As the evidence deepens of the nature of harm her decisions have caused and her actions have caused, I really have to wonder how she lives with that knowledge. 

Mashable: In terms of the granular picture, on that school-to-school level, what are you seeing and what are you worried about? 

EB: We actually saw a slight uptick for the first time in a long time of harassment on the basis of gender identity and gender expression. So transgender and gender-non conforming young people are facing more serious harassment, more frequent harassment at school. They are in many ways very visible targets, especially at schools where school policy does not support them, and can in effect make them very visible as potential targets for those who want to do them harm. I think the thing that gives me a great deal of hope is that we have seen an incredible outpouring of affirmative support, particularly for transgender students, from educators, from parents who understand what the stakes are for these students, and from other students who respect and support their peers. 

There was a story recently about a student club — not a [gender and sexuality alliance club], but a student club — in South Dakota that went to the school district to say, ‘You should add gender identity to non-discrimination protections in our district because our peer students need it.’ So what we’ve seen is a sharpening of attacks as transgender students and LGB students are really singled out by our very own government as being unworthy of support, and people who are bent on doing harm pick them as targets. But at the same time, we also see the activation of all these people of good will out there who really are resisting this attack. 

Mashable: GLSEN has made student-led advocacy core to its work. Generally speaking, what lessons have you learned about how to empower youth who may feel marginalized or powerless? 

EB: One of the things that’s truly important about this is that the advocacy that students carry forward is really a core part of their resilience; it’s incredibly brave, and it’s something we are here to support in so many ways. I think what has been amazing to me is to see how students everywhere will seize hold of a good idea, make it their own, and put it into action locally, over and over and over again. At GLSEN, we’re trying to ensure that when some student somewhere is brave enough to decide they’re going to stand up and do the work, that we are there to help them do it as powerfully as they can and to give them ideas of what to ask for and what changes to push for that are effective, because you don’t want one ounce of that energy and bravery to be wasted. It’s a big deal to stand up and do that work yourself. 

It’s a big deal to stand up and do that work yourself. 

The other thing I’ve learned over time is that students make the work their own in a way that’s core to its power and evolution. They will make the asks in their own way. They are the experts on their own experience. We have information and evidence and ideas about what’s worked in the past or in other places. There’s so many ways to change the world, and students invent new ones everyday, taking the spark of advocacy from place to place, from school to school in a way that we are here to support and here to partner [with] when they ask us for help. 

Mashable: How can adults better listen to the voices of children being bullied, particularly those who are LGBTQ?  

EB: One is to listen for them. To know that they’re there, to listen for what’s left unsaid as someone approaches you. Supportive adults in a school environment are an absolute lifeline for LGBTQ youth. There’s two stages of ways that adults can help. The first is just being visible as a potential source of support. That’s the idea behind one of our most popular resources ever: the Safe Space sticker. Just knowing that you have support, potentially, can really change a student’s life, let alone that moment when they actually come and ask to talk with you. The safe space sticker comes with the GLSEN Safe Space Kit, which is there for educators when a student approaches them and is looking for help. 

One of the big things for adults in these environments is to ensure that you listen to what’s actually been asked for. Sometimes it’s about just lending an ear. Sometimes it’s about partnership and problem-solving and sometimes it’s looking for advocacy with help from an adult if the environment seems difficult. But it might be any one of those things and it’s important not to assume that what’s needed is for you to jump in and fix the problem. 

Mashable: There’s a lot of ink spilled about the young generation coming up and derisive talk about safe spaces or quote-un-quote identity politics. I think it’s fair to argue that these young people are often underestimated by older folks in the room. What have you learned from the youth you work with about resilience, determination, and change-making? 

EB: A preface thought to that: I think it’s important to be really clear about what we’re actually talking about in terms of what these students are experiencing. When people cry, ‘free speech,’ or, ‘You’re being too sensitive,’ these are students that are — let me put it this way: The word “faggot” and “dyke” are not part of any religious creed, and harassment and assault are crimes. This is what these students are actually experiencing: verbal harassment, physical assault, sexual harassment, sexual assault. A recent study found that transgender students who do not have appropriate bathroom access are much more likely to be sexually assaulted at school, because not having appropriate bathroom access makes them visible to the world and vulnerable as a target. The school clearly has no interest in keeping them safe by letting them use appropriate bathroom facilities. 

I do think it’s important that we keep a very tight focus on the fact that these experiences are clearly unacceptable under any standards. The idea that we’re talking about protecting students from experiences that somehow are ones they ought to have to toughen them up, as I used to have to argue … is nonsense. I want to put that out there. We are talking about very, very severe experiences and levels of danger for the majority of the students we’re talking about, particularly trans youth of color. 

When you are in a situation where you are in control of your own destiny, you’re better off. 

We never encourage anyone to come out unless they’ve thought about it really carefully. But what we found consistently over time is that students who are out feel more connected to school, are less likely to be damaged by any of the victimization that they experience. Outness is a factor in resilience. Being fully yourself at school contributes to your better experience, even when you are targeted. When you are in a situation where you are in control of your own destiny, you’re better off. 

The experience of LGBTQ youth is a consistent demonstration of the importance of the simple dignity of being yourself in your life at school, and being able to live that out whether it’s about the absence of violence, or whether it’s about affirmative inclusion in school activities, like athletics or the prom. These are experiences that every student in this country should have available to them in their full self. We continue to work on that because all of our children deserve absolutely no less. 

Read more great Pride Month stories:

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