Lavender graduations offer students
By Jane Latus / Photography by Tony Bacewicz
It’s a celebration – and an act of defiance.
It’s for sharing your achievements with the family you were given – or the family you chose.
It’s a Lavender Graduation, and at a growing number of colleges, LGBTQ graduates gather each year to celebrate making it against the odds, and enriching the campus they are leaving behind.
Balloons floated in ballrooms, music filled courtyards, and caterers restocked buffets at lavender ceremonies across the state last spring, among them the University of Connecticut, Yale University and Trinity College, along with Central, Southern, Western and Eastern Connecticut state universities.
Each school does it its own way. Some bring in big-name speakers – others, a revered faculty member. Some speed along so the party starts ASAP; others are two-hour affairs with many moving student speeches. In common are enormous smiles, high spirits and, of course, the highly-coveted rainbow tassels.
“This is the only graduation ceremony I’m doing. I feel this is so much more meaningful to me,” says Taylore Grunert at UConn’s event. To fully appreciate his decision, know that he graduated with double majors and a minor.
At Central’s ceremony, master’s degree recipient Elijah Lombardi shares, “This means the world to me.”
Recognition and Resistance
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the first Lavender Graduation, in 1995 at the University of Michigan, was organized by students, perhaps rejected by their families and wanting to celebrate with their friends. But no, the founder is a lesbian whose children blocked her from their ceremonies.
Says Ronni Sanlo, a playwright, author and consultant: “I created Lavender Graduation for two reasons: first, I wasn’t invited to my children’s graduation because of my sexual orientation. Second, LGBTQ students were telling me that their lives were miserable on campus and they couldn’t wait to get out. I wanted their last taste of their college experience to be positive.”
For those wondering, “Why lavender?” – it’s a combination of the pink and black triangles that Nazis forced gay men and lesbians to wear. LGBTQ rights activists claimed it as a symbol of community pride.
By Sanlo’s count, more than 500 universities and colleges nationwide now hold the event. No surprise, given the atmosphere of camaraderie at the ceremonies, combined with the current backlash against gains in LGBTQ rights. At the Central graduation, Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Michael D. Jasek recounted the progress since Stonewall but told graduates, “Today we are under attack again. We’ve walked a long way. We need to celebrate that. But we can’t become complacent. We have a long walk to walk.”
As UConn Rainbow Center Director Kelsey O’Neil put it, “This is first and foremost to celebrate.” But, they added, “It is also an act of resistance in this political climate.”
Meeting a Need
Central may have the state’s longest-running Lavender Graduation, at 11 years. “Although 11 years ago doesn’t seem that long ago, it was a very different climate. I wasn’t there, but I heard it was very hard being out on campus,” says Nichol McCarter, program coordinator at the LGBT Center and a 2018 lavender grad.
McCarter says a small number of people have “expressed upset over this ceremony and seeing it as unfair that LGBTQ+ people are having a ‘separate’ graduation ceremony. However, this is a misconception. This ceremony is not instead of commencement. It’s supplemental.
“LGBTQ people often face rejection, extreme bullying and hardship at a school and at home,” says McCarter. “Many never finish college, are thrown out of their homes, run away, or commit suicide. This ceremony celebrates LGBTQ people and allies that persevered and reached their goals despite those hardships, and commends them for fighting the fight, and finding the strength to continue believing and investing in themselves despite it all.”
McCarter points out this is one of several recognition ceremonies held on campus.
“Colleges and universities have a long history of holding specialized ceremonies that recognize the contributions and achievements of historically underrepresented communities in higher education,” says SAGE Center Coordinator Jenna Retort of Southern, which recently held its third Lavender Graduation. “Students really enjoy the opportunity to engage their families in a more intimate ceremony and highlight their engagement with their community.”
Organizing Trinity’s first Lavender Graduation was one of the first things Carrie Robinson did when becoming director of LGBTQ+ Life there in 2018. “It’s a moment [when] students can really own their identity, and the campus can come together to recognize them and the work they’ve done on campus,” she says.
Advice from Elders: Fight and Love
On a rainy Friday evening at UConn, Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Andrew J. McDonald told graduates that after coming out at their age, “my dad told me no law firm would hire me. I had no role models I knew of who were openly gay.” As others ultimately helped him, he says, “It is your responsibility to also turn around, grab somebody’s hand and pull them up with you.”
On a sun-drenched Saturday morning at Central, activist and writer Kate Bornstein told graduates, “Use your gender and what you know about gender to ease someone else’s suffering and give them some happiness.”
At Southern, Colleen Bielitz, associate vice president for strategic initiatives and outreach, urged graduates, “Create or extend your families based solely on love, and continue to fight for justice and equity in all forms.”
Afterward, Bielitz shared that as a lesbian and mother, “the story of how Lavender Graduation came to be hits home for me. As a group, we are still so largely marginalized. This kind of ceremony allows students to fully connect with their LGBTQ identities.” When she sees proud parents take part, she says, “It makes my heart so full.”
An Emotional Celebration
Participating graduates expressed the gamut of emotions you’d expect from those who faced everything from rejection to bullying to invisibility. All, though, said the ceremony holds deep personal significance. Here are a few of their reflections:
Sam Cahill, Central: “College for me has been really hard and I’m very happy I’m done. At my first school, I got harassed and bullied to the point of having to move dorms,” says the dance major. “Even at Central, the dance program is not very accepting. It’s either straight men or gay men, and there’s no place for gender queer or lesbians. Being a lesbian, it just put me on the outside of everything. The only place I could feel at home was the LGBT center. I could breathe.” At the Lavender ceremony, she says, “They care.”
Rory Dougall, Southern: “It [the ceremony] was about a sense of pride in being able to graduate despite being LGBTQ. Being LGBTQ creates stress from not being ‘normal,’ and that impacts academics. Lavender Graduation was an important stepping stone and something I will cherish.”
Hannah Meyers, UConn: “When I got here, I didn’t have a complete sense of my identity. The Rainbow Center really helped me figure myself out. It feels good to be validated after this place has meant so much to me.” She plans to be a human rights lawyer.
Catherine Menousek, UConn: “My parents aren’t very accepting. My mother has said my grandparents will literally die before they know I’m queer. So, I wanted to do this a lot for me.”
Annissa Carter, UConn: “I was in a room surrounded by people I’ve gotten to know through the Rainbow Center. It’s a much more intimate graduation, too.” Her professional goal is “to help queer people make families.”
Kacie Brennan, Central: “I consider myself five years old,” the length of time she has accepted her identity as a lesbian. She credits Central’s “LGBT-inclusive history courses” for awakening her pride and creating her support network.
Frankie Ashun, UConn: “A lot of the time when queer folks come together, it’s really a type of celebration.”
Rae Enzie, UConn: They also attended the main ceremony, solely so their family could see them graduate, but their diploma will bear a name they don’t recognize. “This [the Lavender Graduation] is for me to graduate with my second family, the people who support me. It’s nice to have this, and be just for me and my true self, and with my chosen name. Also, I wanted the rainbow tassel!”