The leading national non-profit organization working to create safe and inclusive learning and school experiences for LGBTQ+ youth, honored outgoing Executive Director Eliza Byard for her twenty years of service and leadership at the 2021 GLSEN Respect Awards.
Antoni Porowski hosted the virtual event, which celebrated GLSEN’s accomplishments during Byard’s tenure and looked to the future at what’s next for the organization. This year’s festivities took place on October 14, 2021 at 5PM PT/8PM ET at glsen.org/respect.
During the event, journalist and longtime GLSEN supporter Jess Cagle joined Eliza Byard for an intimate conversation, reflecting on Byard’s remarkable twenty years at the organization. Singer-songwriter FLETCHER captivated the audience with her performance of “Healing,” while Tony Award-winning musical artist Lena Hall brought down the house with her take on “Midnight Radio” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
The evening also featured past GLSEN honorees and several of the amazing LGBTQ+ student honorees from previous Respect Awards celebrations. Jim Parsons reunited with student honoree Carly Frieders, Connor Franta spoke with GLSEN alum Kian Tortorello-Allen, and Wilson Cruz was joined by Luis Veloz, as they discussed their experiences with GLSEN, shared highlights and takeaways, and offered some words of wisdom for viewers.
Finally, Jennifer Beals helped GLSEN honor Eliza Byard for her incredible twenty years of service at the organization. They shared a moving video reel featuring the outgoing Executive Director, highlighting her work over the course of the last two decades. Beals then presented Byard with the special award for her inspiring leadership, incredible accomplishments, and unwavering commitment to the cause over the years.
For three decades, GLSEN has led the way on LGBTQ+ issues in K-12 education through ground-breaking original research, innovative program development, educator training, student organizing, and targeted state and federal advocacy. With the development of educational resources, direct engagement of youth and educators, and GLSEN national programs like GLSEN Day of Silence and Solidarity Week. GLSEN has seen the impact of its work in measurable improvements in the lives of LGBTQ+ students in the United States.
Earlier, Eliza Byard issued this farewell letter:
After 12 years as GLSEN’s Executive Director, and nearly twenty in GLSEN leadership, I’ve decided the time has come for me to start a new chapter. On March 1st, I will step down as Executive Director. Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, GLSEN’s Deputy Executive Director, will take over as Interim Executive Director, while the Board launches a national search for GLSEN’s next leader.
As I plan to depart, I’m proud to say that the organization is extremely well positioned to continue to act as an agent of change. We are in our strongest financial position ever, with a newly invigorated leadership team that is the most diverse in the organization’s history, allies in the incoming administration, and a vibrant period of strategic innovation just ahead.
Perhaps most importantly, GLSEN has been engaged for some time in an on-going process of learning, self-assessment, and transformation, to create the internal culture and external strategies necessary to contribute to the anti-racist work essential to achieving our mission. I am deeply appreciative of my colleagues – at the Board, staff, and chapter level – who have been partners in that work, and to the new leaders whose vision is shaping that future. It is inspiring to see it coming into view.
I am grateful to have led GLSEN through two decades of significant accomplishments and crucial evolution. Since I arrived in 2001, thousands of people – staff, student leaders, educators, and GLSEN chapter leaders – have come together to transform K-12 education and open new worlds of possibility for LGBTQ+ youth. Looking back, it is astounding to contemplate how much the world has changed for LGBTQ+ people, and I am proud of GLSEN’s contributions.
When I began this work, it was not legal to be gay in 15 states. Today more than 26 million U.S. students go to school in states with laws that specifically protect LGBTQ+ students from harassment and violence.
Throughout the aughts, we fought fiercely to support LGBTQ+ students forming GSAs in the face of right wing attacks, and repelled efforts to require access to conversion therapy at school as the “balanced response” to the clubs’ existence. Today, more than 80% of teachers and school-based mental health providers consider it their professional responsibility to support, protect, and affirm LGBTQ+ students; 1,300 educators registered for our GSA advisor summit in September; and more than 65% of all LGBTQ+ students have access to a GSA.
Perhaps most affecting, I have personally witnessed generations of students engaged with GLSEN go from being targets of harassment to self-advocates to effective organizers to accomplished leaders in their fields – educators, elected officials, union organizers and social entrepreneurs. How gratifying that some of them are now my colleagues as leaders in the LGBTQ+ movement.
Special thanks are due to GLSEN Board members, past and present, who are such dedicated stewards of the mission and ambassadors for our cause. I am so grateful to all the colleagues, partners, and donors whose commitment to GLSEN has made everything possible. In the weeks ahead, I look forward to connecting with as many of you as I can to say thank you in person. GLSEN and our entire society have urgent and very difficult work ahead. I will continue to learn from you and work alongside you, albeit in a new capacity, as we continue to fight for the future that every single child deserves.
With all my warmest thanks,
For additional information, please visit www.glsen.org/respect.