In 1995, Dr. Ronni Sanlo was barred from her children’s graduation for being a lesbian. Her response to experiencing the pain many of her students felt was to create a ceremony of her own, the Lavender Graduation.
Thursday was the fifth annual Lavender Graduation at IUPUI, as it sought to recognize and celebrate the achievement of students who often go unnoticed. The color lavender is prominent in the LGBTQ+ community as a combination of the pink and black triangles worn by gay and lesbian prisoners in Nazi camps.
Lavender Graduation is an annual ceremony that encompasses the December, May, and August graduations for the year.
Only a handful of students were honored at IUPUI’s first Lavender Graduation in 2013. Attendance has grown every year since, with 11 students receiving graduate and undergraduate degrees in a number of schools this year. There has always been a keynote speaker who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community and an IU-affiliate.
Anthony Masseria, chair of the LGBTQ+ Faculty Staff Council, originally coordinated Lavender Graduation. But with the advent of the LGBTQ+ Center, he co-chairs with Tristan Vaught and Christy Cole.
“We didn’t get to do anything like this when I was an undergrad. I was out as a student, but visibility back in the late ‘90s early 2000s was nothing compared to what students today get to experience,” Masseria said. “So for me this is a symbol of how far the community has come over the past several decades.”
Students, their supporters, and a number of LGBTQ+ faculty and staff come together to praise graduates and reminisce. Several of this year’s graduates were part of the LGTBQ+ Student Alliance’s development when they were freshmen.
“For me, it’s a fantastic way for us to be able to highlight students who are often invisible on our campus, who aren’t always seen or given their accolades for what they’ve done,” Vaught said.
Lavender Graduation is a time of open celebration and uninhibited pride, but keynote speaker Dr. Tiffany Kyser reminded attendees that being part of the LGBTQ+ community also has responsibilities. As an openly queer, black woman, Kyser emphasized how identities intersect and can be erased or celebrated.
Kyser specifically talked about her experience in being part of “#TheGreatEight.” As the only out member of eight black women who graduated with doctorates from IU last year, she often felt like just a facet of her identity was being represented. A major part of her speech was intersectionality and recognizing how different identities overlap.
She also discussed how sub groups within the LGBTQ+ community, like transgender people and people of color, can be further marginalized even as they are community members.
“Let’s not front that it’s all kumbaya,” she said shortly before the ceremony began. “It’s not. Let’s really be authentic about the respecting and honoring the subcommunities within our communities and the propensity for us on the margins to marginalize others in our community.”
Lavender Graduation’s presence on campus means that there is open acknowledgement and support for LGBTQ+ students, but the classroom environment leaves something to be desired.
Masseria noted how in his experience, faculty, especially faculty of color, as less likely to be out on campus. He supposed that fear of students responding negatively to being out and open contributes to this phenomenon.
“Faculty of color are already burdened with a lot of care within the discipline, and so there are some conscious choices our queer faculty of color have to make on campus,” he said. “And so one of the things we have observed is faculty who do come out to our events are typically white faculty.”
The journey to safety and equality on campus will be just as long as any other, but the Lavender Graduation is proof of progress.
“I think this is one of many steps we have to take as a campus to start to realize students, faculty, staff, stakeholders in this community are three-dimensional human beings, who have a myriad of identities and those identities have been relegated to margins,” Kyser said. “And we need to be unapologetic about that.”