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GLSEN executive to speak at Elmhurst College
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2013-10-09

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Eliza Byard. Photo courtesy GLSEN


Eliza Byard will be at Elmhurst College on Wednesday, Oct. 23, for a talk entitled, The LGBT Student and the Culture of Respect, which is this year's William R. Johnson Intercultural Lecture at the west suburban school.

It certainly, too, will be a flashback for Byard.

Years ago as a graduate student, Byard was an adjunct teacher for undergraduate students at Barnard College and Columbia University, in history and American studies. That brief teaching gig ended in the 1990s.

"It's an amazing thing," Byard said, laughing. "When I taught years ago, they had to listen to me. Now they've asked to listen to me. That's a very nice difference."

Byard is now the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network ( GLSEN ), a leader in the education, youth development and civil rights sectors fighting to end bias-based bullying, violence and discrimination in K-12 schools and promote a culture of respect for all.

The annual William R. Johnson Intercultural Lecture is named in honor of Elmhurst College alumnus Reverend Dr. William R. Johnson ( Class of 1968 ), who was openly gay, and one of the first in modern history to gain ordination to the mainstream Christian ministry.

Elmhurst College is a private liberal arts college, affiliated with the United Church of Christ. It also, in 2011, added a question about prospective students' sexual orientation and gender identity in its admission application.

"[On]-campus speaking engagements are particularly interesting because every campus has a very distinct personality. I love visiting with communities in the way that you do when you speak at a school," Byard said. "I often find that the Q&A session can raise issues that become fodder for future work.

"When I'm talking to faculties or schools, I'm always on the lookout for what's the next topic for concern or the next issues/topics, especially those that we haven't yet taken on at GLSEN.

"This particular speaking engagement seemed really interesting because it's about the dynamics of intercultural life, and then placing that within the world."

Byard's speech starts at 4 p.m., in the Frick Center of Founders Lounge ( 190 Prospect Ave. ). Admission is $10 for the general public and free for Elmhurst College students, faculty, staff and alumni. Tickets are available at www.elmhurst.edu/tix.

The college approached GLSEN in hopes she would speak at the event, Byard said, and she's "honored and pleased" to do so.

"From what I know about Elmhurst College, it is a place that has always fostered interesting dialogue; I'm really looking forward to being a part of that series," she said. "[Elmhurst College] does a great deal to foster real dialogue around issues of cultural difference and community, in a way that is very productive.

"Personally, I particularly enjoy presentations to a college audience, which is so wide-ranging. The thing I particularly love is, the kinds of questions that come up; I always look forward to that aspect of these talks and presentations."

Byard has spent 13 years at GLSEN, first joining as deputy executive director. She lives in New York City with her partner and their two children.

"One of the things that has been a real focus during my time at GLSEN is about putting the LGBT experience in context, in terms of why these issues matter, not just for the individual who is directly affected, but for the community around them," Byard said. "My interest is in drawing some connections for an audience about some of the successes that we have had and why I think we've had them.

"When I was teaching in the 1990s, the exploration of LGBT issues and themes, in the college context, was in its infancy. It was then called lesbian and gay studies, then queer studies. But it was not part of the everyday undergraduate college existence. Things started to happen through the 1990s that indicted that people were beginning to understand why this mattered, and why this understanding was so important. Now, to be going to Elmhurst College, in this context, is one of the examples of where we've come; people understand this as a key part of the dialogue.

"I can't wait to see what questions they bring to the conversation."

Byard added: "A lot of my time at GLSEN, particularly my earlier years, was about fostering common ground and really working with people who we had very fundamental disagreements [with] in order to find a way forward. Going to a place like Elmhurst feels like a slightly different experience, but certainly increases my sense of community, and what it means to talk to this community."

Byard said the fact that Elmhurst College asks prospective students' sexual orientation and gender identity in its admission application can make "an enormous difference, whether it's [to and for] the person who checks the box, or the person who just notices that it's there and understands this to be a place that recognizes and respects that category."

Thus, forward-thinking schools such as Elmhurst College should be celebrated, she said.

Byard spoke this past August in Washington D.C., in conjunction with the commemorative 50th anniversary March on Washington. GLSEN partner organizations, mostly in the South, nominated Byard to speak at the event, and the King Center selected her.

She said it was "the experience of a lifetime."

GLSEN was the lone LGBT organization represented at the event.

"When I got the invitation [to speak at the event], I didn't think it was real. But it was, and it really was an occasion like none other," she said. "To stand on the steps where Bayard Rustin stood, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood, where all of those incredible pioneers and path-breakers stood, and to honor what they did … to be a part of that was just amazing. It meant a lot to me to particularly call out the names of LGBT youth that we have lost as inspirations to keep going, and to re-dedicate ourselves to the struggle for real equality for everyone.

"It was an unforgettable experience, though I also refer to it as the scariest two minutes of my life. It was the most humbling experience of my life, humbling in a good way, one that left me happier than I was before.

"Plus, it was the first time my work has interfered with a family vacation—and yet my partner completely understood."


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