‘Lavender’ ceremony celebrates LGBTQ graduates

by | May 3, 2018

Degree candidates share stories of struggle and acceptance at UMSL's first formal, public Lavender Graduation ceremony for LGBTQ students.

(From left) University of Missouri––St. Louis Chancellor Tom George; degree candidates Tom Gaska Jr., Travonte Harris, Audrey Taylor, Judy Colson and Courtney Leonard; and Harry Hawkins, diversity and LGBTQ+ program and project support coordinator, took part in the university’s first public, formal Lavender Graduation to celebrate the achievements of LGBTQ students. (Photo by David Morrison)

Jessica Kehle stood at the front of Century Room C in the Millennium Student Center, wiping persistent tears from the corners of her eyes.

As president of PRIZM, the University of Missouri–St. Louis queer-trans-straight alliance, it was her duty to hand out the stoles to each of the five participants of the Lavender Graduation on April 30. Harry Hawkins, UMSL’s diversity and LGBTQ+ program and project support coordinator, called the graduates’ names and, one by one, they came to the front of the room and met Kehle, who draped the stoles around their necks.

Each time Kehle gave out a stole – black, adorned with patches of rainbow coloring and the words “Lavender Graduation” in all caps – she reflected on the journey that each of the graduates had taken to this point.

She knows it well.

“The message that you have to love all of yourself is really resonant with me,” Kehle said. “I’ve had to come out twice: I came out as gay three years ago, and now I’m coming out as pansexual, which is a whole other animal. It took me a long time to get to where I am.”

UMSL held a public, formal Lavender Graduation ceremony, which honors lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students, for the first time this year. PRIZM put on informal Lavender Graduation events before, for members in a closed setting.

PRIZM sponsored the formal ceremony, along with the offices of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Sexuality and Gender Diversity. The university is one of more than 175 other higher education institutions around the country that offer this ceremony, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

“The focus that we have here on inclusion, diversity, that’s a value that we hold dear to our hearts at the University of Missouri–St. Louis,” Chancellor Tom George said. “The LGBTQ students are very important to us here at the university. We are very proud of you. Congratulations on the first Lavender Graduation: the first of many to come.”

Maria Theresa Balogh, associate teaching professor of Spanish, read an original poem to mark the occasion, and Director of Gender Studies Dr. Kathleen Nigro introduced speaker Sayer Johnson.

Johnson, who is executive director and co-founder of the St. Louis Metro Trans Umbrella Group, bought his first suit as a transgender man before he attended the inaugural Transgender Spectrum Conference at UMSL in 2014.

“I am proud our school was a turning point for this very brave, notable community activist, that we are a place where everyone can feel welcome and safe and be a place for change and growth,” said Nigro, who presented Johnson with an honorary UMSL certificate in Gender Studies at the event.

In his speech, Johnson reminded the graduates to love all the parts of themselves that got them to this point. He said that it took him a long time to embrace “birth-name Sayer,” because she reminded him of times of sadness, struggle and self-loathing.

But, Johnson said, she also played a pivotal role in building the “aggressive ego” Sayer that has allowed him to flourish.

“Maybe it was awkward to come out, maybe it was brutal,” Johnson said. “Maybe when you gained your identity, you lost everything. That part of you is resilient. That part of you deserves to feel that paper in your hand when you walk in your cap and gown. You have accomplished this with all your parts: all your wonderful, complicated parts.”

After the graduates heard their names called and received their applause and stoles, they had a chance to address the room. Those who spoke expressed gratitude to their fellow PRIZM members for helping create a community on campus, while acknowledging the obstacles they still face.

“I’m just thankful for this event and everybody here,” said Travonte Harris, who is graduating with a BS in Media Studies. “It’s been a real struggle. It’s not easy being an LGBT member. But I want you to know that it does get better. Every day, it’s a little bit better than the day before.”

Judy Colson, a BSW candidate, said the public Lavender Graduation at UMSL set a precedent that needs to be followed. Kehle, a second-year MFA graduate student, is already considering what her Lavender Graduation will be like in two years.

“I will just be bawling hysterically at that one,” Kehle said.

David Morrison

David Morrison

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