At Thursday night’s Lavender Graduation, a few dozen students, staff and faculty members from three of the four area schools gathered to recognize their LGBT+ graduating students.
In a country where being too politically correct is an insult and most campuses have at least one safe space, it is easy to dismiss a special graduation ceremony for LGBT+ students. However, the rich history of the event provides greater depth and context to the meaning behind Lavender Graduation.
In 1995, Dr. Ronni Sanlo was working as director of the LGBT+ resource center at the University of Michigan. She started the ceremony after being prohibited from seeing her own biological children’s graduation ceremonies and was deprived custody of them for being a lesbian. This opened her eyes to how difficult it must be for university students to celebrate their identities while at school.
“I realized that LGBT+ students deserved to be recognized not only for their achievements but for surviving their college years,” Sanlo, in a 2006 issue of Campus Pride, said. “As the planning of commencement activities for 1995 took place, I saw an opportunity to include LGBT+ students in the celebratory process.”
Olivia Matthews, the MSUM Coordinator of Multicultural Affairs, wants to continue that legacy.
“I hope that all schools will eventually have a Lavender Graduation to show support for their LGBT+ students and recognize them,” Matthews said. “The rich history, but also that the story is Dr. Sanlo is the story of a lot of our students in that that person took something negative that happened to her and she turned it into this beautiful thing that’s impacting hundreds of students across the entire country.”
During the quad-college ceremony, 12 students received purple cords they can wear to commencement in May. Nine of the students were from MSUM, and many of those who attended were actively involved in on-campus queer associations and programs.
Some of the most significant changes in the university’s attitudes towards LGBT+ people were spurred by the efforts of leaders recognized at Lavender Graduation. These include Jayce Branden, Kari Barnick and Heather Keeler.
The keynote speaker of the night, local LGBT+ activist, counselor and president of Tristate Transgender, Rebel Marie, said working in and of itself can be a powerful statement toward acceptance.
“If you want to be an advocate for the LGBT+ community, do your job and do it well,” Marie said. “You’ll have to work twice as hard for half the praise, but nothing speaks louder in this community than a job well done.”
In the 23 years since the celebration was founded—older now than many of the graduates—it has spread across the country. In 2001 there were 45 Lavender Graduations. Now, there are over 150, and larger cultural attitudes have also continued to shift.
The country has moved from passing the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 to the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Obergefell declaring same-sex marriage legal in all states and territories. Despite the many victories for the LGBT+ community over the last two decades, Matthews’ outlook is hesitant.
“We will keep pushing for equity, but I don’t know that we will ever, ever truly get to equality,” Matthews said. “I don’t know that we’ll ever live in a world where we don’t need to be recognizing our LGBT+ students or our multicultural students and our international students because they’re still going to have challenges to overcome. I hope it will be less in 20 years … but I am optimistically realistic.”
For those who still doubt the value of the ceremony, Matthews stated that as long as there are inequalities, there will still be value in recognizing the extra barriers marginalized students face.
“I think it’s important because LGBT+ students or those other populations—international students, historically underrepresented students of color—they’re marginalized identities and they’re minorities right now,” Matthews said. “They face a lot more barriers and challenges than other students do, and recognizing that they overcame that and are going out in the world with a bachelor’s degree, that’s something that should be celebrated.”