First Lavender Graduation to honor LGBTQ+ students

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The College of William and Mary will host its first Lavender Graduation May 11 for LGBTQ+ and SGL students. TUCKER HIGGINS / THE FLAT HAT

For the first time in its history, the College of William and Mary will host a Lavender Graduation ceremony May 11 during Commencement Weekend to celebrate the accomplishments of LGBTQ+ and same gender loving, or SGL, graduates.

The first Lavender Graduation ceremony took place at the University of Michigan in 1995, but now over 45 colleges and universities in the U.S. — including the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech — host their own Lavender Graduation ceremonies.

Lavender has historical significance for the LGBTQ+ community. Gay men and lesbian women in Nazi Germany were forced to wear pink and black triangles, respectively, and lavender represents a combination of the two colors.

Associate Director for the Center for Student Diversity Roxie Patton said that the ceremony was designed to create a space for LGBTQ+ students to be honored for their accomplishments and resilience and to celebrate them as valued members of the College community.

“The university itself has really embraced this as a new tradition for us,” Patton said.

“The university itself has really embraced this as a new tradition for us,” Patton said.

Although the details of the ceremony are still being decided, Patton said that it will feature a conferral of a rainbow-adorned stole to the graduates, followed by a reception and a ceremony to honor LGBTQ+ alumni.

“This is a momentous occasion, and we want to make sure we’re recognizing the LGBTQ folks who came before us who have helped make the climate what it is now,” Patton said.

The Lavender Graduation ceremony speaker will be Board of Visitors Member Doug Bunch ’02 J.D. ’06. Bunch is a co-founder of the Global Playground, a partner at a Washington, D.C. law firm and serves on the board of Virginia21, an organization that advocates on behalf of the interests of college and university students in Virginia. In 2011, Bunch received the Marshall-Wythe School of Law’s inaugural W. Taylor Reveley III award, which recognizes alumni who have demonstrated a sustained commitment to public service.

“It’s beyond time to recognize our LGBTQ* students in a special way at Commencement, and I look forward to doing so,” Bunch said in an email.

“It’s beyond time to recognize our LGBTQ* students in a special way at Commencement, and I look forward to doing so,” Bunch said in an email. “As a member of William & Mary’s Board of Visitors, I’m excited that the Lavender Graduation will acknowledge how much we value the contributions of LGBTQ* students on campus. And as a member of William & Mary’s LGBTQ* alumni community myself, I know how strongly our broader university community values diversity of gender identity and diversity of sexual orientation and stands ready to welcome our new graduates. I’m thrilled to be one of the first to do so.”

Once the ceremony was officially approved by the university in January, a committee made up of faculty and staff, as well as student representatives from oSTEM — a group for LGBTQ+ involved in science, technology, engineering and math — and the Lambda Alliance, was assembled to jointly plan the ceremony. The three staff members on the planning committee are Campus Recreation Director Linda Knight, EqualityWM Co-chair and Assistant Director at the Office of Health Promotion Eric Garrison M.Ed. ’94, and Assistant Director of Student Leadership Development Joe Wheeless.

EqualityWM, the LGBTQ+ faculty and staff organization, and the gender, sexuality and women’s studies department have donated funds to support the ceremony.

“Our whole LGBTQ community has come together to make this happen,” Patton said. “It’s been a very exciting process.”

Since the College does not collect demographic data on LGBTQ+ students specifically, the committee has relied on reaching out to LGBTQ+ activist groups on campus to spread the word about this event. Patton said that 13 students have already registered to participate, and over 60 people have RSVP’d to attend, and she hopes that number continues to grow in future years. Registration for the Lavender Graduation ceremony closes Friday, April 6, at 5 p.m.

“All marginalized groups have so many obstacles to college retention and graduation,” Patton said. “It’s important to have a moment to respect and honor these LGBTQ students and for the institution to recognize the wealth of diversity they bring. It’s important for us to fully recognize that not only do we serve the students but the students bring something incredibly important to us.”

Wheeless said that this ceremony could be an incredibly meaningful gesture for LGBTQ+ students on campus to see the institution recognize them.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to support all of our students, no matter what experience they have or how they identify,” Wheeless said. “And I think to recognize William and Mary is made up of a lot of different people and that’s what makes William and Mary great and unique.”

Wheeless said the committee is cognizant of the fact that this ceremony could mean a lot of different things to different people, as not every LGBTQ+ student’s family or groups of peers would be supportive of them in the same way.

“For a student who lives an out life I think it is recognition of who they are,” Wheeless said. “I think for a student that might not be out, it may provide a space to interact with people and connect with people.”

For alumni, it signifies the progress the school is making in recognizing different identities.

Wheeless said that he is also mindful of making sure the College builds an infrastructure around this ceremony to ensure its longevity, and that it is closely connected with the alumni LGBTQ+ affinity group.

Ifeoma Ayika ’21, the new student representative for the Lambda Alliance, is also a part of the Lavender Graduation planning committee and has served as a liaison between Lambda and administrators. Mostly, Ayika said she would like to see this ceremony actually take place.

“When something like this happens once, it’s hard to shake,” Ayika said.

Ayika said that the adversity and personal struggles LGBTQ+ and SGL students face warrant the recognition the Lavender Graduation provides.

“There are always going to be people who don’t accept who you are,” Ayika said. “To have a ceremony for people, to know that you’re being accepted, to know that you’re going to be with a group of peers who have struggled with you and have triumphed with you because of that specific part of your identity is important.”

“It’s going to be very affirming to have an institution backing you, and saying, ‘This is who you are, not only do we accept that, but we want to celebrate who you are,’” Ayika said.

Ayika added that she thinks it is incredible to have the opportunity to be recognized and to celebrate LGBTQ+ students in an education system that has historically marginalized them.

“It’s going to be very affirming to have an institution backing you, and saying, ‘This is who you are, not only do we accept that, but we want to celebrate who you are,’” Ayika said.

One of the students who registered to participate in the Lavender Graduation this year is Jacob Hopkins ’18.

“This is William and Mary’s first time recognizing the achievements of graduating queer students on campus, and I knew I wanted to be a part of this inaugural event,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins added that a Lavender Graduation ceremony represents an important step in the College validating and supporting LGBTQ+ and SGL students.

“My hope is that this recognition sustains momentum for other campus-wide initiatives meant to uplift and protect the lives and well-being of queer people on campus, not just when they graduate but from orientation all the way through,” Hopkins said.

At the College, Hopkins said, he has found a community that has taught him the importance of standing up for his values, of learning when to talk and recognizing when to listen.

“For me, graduating from William and Mary as a member of the LGBTQ community means understanding that my identity is often at odds with longstanding institutional barriers but that that doesn’t mean I need to be complicit or silent,” Hopkins said. “… The path of progress is long and slow but William and Mary has a strong group of people dedicated to never giving up or giving in.”

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