Lavender Graduation

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Lavender Graduations (also sometimes called Rainbow Graduations)  are special ceremonies held in colleges and even sometimes high schools specifically for the queer students who are graduating. This smaller ceremony is usually held a few weeks prior to the actual graduation ceremony, and serves as an opportunity to recognize not only the exceptional students who went above and beyond, either with their academic achievements or their contributions to the LGBTQIA community on campus, but to acknowledge the shared struggle of all the LGBTQIA students of being queer on campus. Students are usually given a rainbow or lavender cord to wear with their robes at the official commencement, to signify our shared struggle. It’s a somewhat new movement that has been rapidly gaining popularity over the past few years, which I think is amazing.  My college did not (and still does not) have a Lavender Graduation ceremony, however, a few of us queer grads were given rainbow cords to wear at commencement.

I was honored to be the keynote speaker for Bloomsburg University’s Lavender Graduation this year. It was my first experience at a Lavender Graduation, and it went really excellent. I wanted to share some of what I spoke about here as well.

I started college in 2005. At that time, there was 1 state that had legal same-sex marriage. Today, 10 states have legal same-sex marriage. Then, there was hardly any legal protection for queer people in PA. Now, more and more counties and cities are passing ordinances to protect the rights of LGBT individuals. Then, there was no discussion of transgender people in the media, except on Jerry Springer. Now, gay rights are discussed on the news all the time, then gay characters were still largely jokes. And now, polls show more than half of Americans believe queer people should have all the same rights and protections as straight people, which includes marriage. This is a struggle, for visibility and acceptance, that all queer people are part of. Whether you are a devoted activist, or you just support all of your friends who are queer, or you are out, or you are an ally, we are all part of this struggle together.

Finding employment as a queer person is often one of the biggest struggles, especially for any gender variant individuals. In the workplace, especially in white collar workplaces, you are expected to conform to certain standards, be it dress code, language, or even behavior. Often, these narrow standards have no room for variant individuals. It was something I in particular struggled with out of college. Luckily, at that point, I had been on hormones for about two years and passed fairly well, so it was easier for me to blend in. When I was outted, or outted myself, it often did create problems, especially around using the bathroom. But I was never ashamed of myself, and I was always honest. It helped a great deal to have a few allies in work who would either stand up for me, or support me when I stood up for myself. Overall, everyones’ experience will be different .

Depending on your field or even on your company, it may not be at all an issue to be queer and be out. On the other hand, some jobs will all but require you to be in the closet. It is important to decide for yourself how much you can put up with. Research your company’s discrimination and harassment policies. Find ways that you can be out comfortably without making it a confrontation. Maybe a picture of your partner on your desk or a rainbow flag or somthing. Many people in the “real world” haven’t encountered out, proud queer people. They may need time to figure out how to deal with that. Be patient, and try to educate others where you can. When you feel safe and comfortable, answer questions they ask; sometimes they will come out rude but often they don’t mean it. Try to give them the benefit of the doubt and clear up their misconceptions, but if they are being offensive you have every right not to answer and to politely ask them to stop.

Every time we educate a straight person, teach them to be more accepting and understanding of us queer people, it has a larger effect than we often see. That straight person, who may have never thought about what a transsexual person is, will be more understanding of other gender variant individuals they meet. If we can make an ally, not an enemy, we can make a big change. Its not just for the individual though; the more people we educate, the more people understand, the faster the entire LGBT movement moves forward. Indeed, the struggle of every individual queer person is always a part of the bigger struggle for equality, since the people we educate and help understand will undoubtably interact with more than just one queer person in their life. And if, later in life, their child comes out to be gay or their best friend transitions, they will be more able to understand, love, and support these other people.

We truly are striving together, and we are making progress. Every time a queer individual fights for their protection and equality, they are simultaneously promoting those rights for all queer people. And the person whom they educate will often be an advocate in some way, down the road, even if its something so small as using proper pronouns for a gender variant person or as big as shouting there is no difference between that gender variant person and themselves (one of my coworkers at my first post college job did just this – yelling at some maintenance person who called me disgusting). Its progress that we are all making together. We endure in hopes the next generation will not need to. We are changing the world for the next generation. But in order to make that change, we need to practice self care. Self care is essential for all of us, and getting a job that will allow you to be stable (while not driving you too insane) is essential. So the last piece of advice I shared with all the grads was this: You have so much to be proud of, and you have many struggles ahead. Take care of yourself, make sure you are stable and strong enough to face whatever comes your way.

Update on DeSales Homophobia

I first want to thank Elizabeth Rich for commenting on my previous post and highlighting her article on the topic, which I would like to respond to here.

It’s interesting to see DeSales’ view on the matter. We could boil the argument down to whether it is indeed hypocritical for a Christian institute to not openly condemn LGBT students. From all of my research, Jesus emphasized loving your neighbor despite their ‘sins’ and not to judge yourself as better than your neighbor. However, this isn’t just a spiritual argument. This article highlights graffiti of the word “Fag” that was spray painted in one of the dorms on campus. No one was reprimanded or punished for this. It was simply glossed over.

This sort of overt hatred from one student to another should be a red flag to administrators. First off, if someone is bold enough to directly deface an LGBT student’s door, it is not a far leap before they are attacking that student in other ways. To gloss over this issue is to put the student in jeopardy of more attacks, that can very easily escalate. Besides the physical danger to the student, this sort of isolation and dehumanization of LGBT students lead to increased rates of lower grades, depression, and even suicide. If you would like to learn more about discrimination in schools and its effects, I recommend reading some resources including GLSEN’s National School Climate survey from 2009. While the focus is on K-12, the statistics show where these students may be coming from as they enter college, and why such bullying can have such terrible consequences for any LGBT students.

I also want to highlight an Op-Ed penned by a friend of mine, Adrian Shanker, President of the Board of Directors for Equality Pennsylvania. This article talks about how GSA’s are just one part of what makes an inclusive campus, and talks about the many steps a campus actually can take to be inclusive and supportive to their LGBT students. In particular, Adrian highlights that  “graffiti with the word “fag” carries no more a punishment than the word ‘frog’, when the former is a hateful epithet and the latter is not.” I have talked about how powerful the word “Fag” can be, but suffice to say, DeSales failed utterly to do so much as protect the safety of one of their own students by ignoring this.

While a GSA would not, in any way, make DeSales an inclusive campus, it would allow any queer students at the college at least one safe space they can go to and not feel in danger, not feel isolated. Several people have talked about this with me and suggested the LGBT students shouldn’t attend that college at all then. Unfortunately, from my experience, parents can often influence or directly decide what university their child attends. Most 18 year olds right out of high school cannot afford college on their own, so their parents’ often have a strong say where their child goes. I would not be at all surprised to find a fair number of students at DeSales sent their specifically by their Catholic parents in an effort to “fix” or “cure” the child. The students may have little or no say where they go.

I don’t realistically expect DeSales to suddenly turn around and support a GSA. However, I think this is the perfect opportunity for students at DeSales and local allies to highlight that the university is actively and publicly condemning it’s own students; that the university would rather keep to its “antiquated church doctrine” (which actually talks about love and acceptance despite sin, not condemnation) than protect the lives and safety of its own students. If they want to allow physical, verbal, and emotional violence from their students and staff to other students, make that publicly known. As for the students at DeSales, regardless of the outcome, I encourage all of you to get together and create a carpool to visit other campus GSA’s, attend their meetings as guests, and overall just ensure some sort of safe space for the students who need it.

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