Lavender Graduation honors eight LGBTQ+ students

Ellis McGinleyCopy Editor

The university honored eight 2021 graduates at its April 5 Lavender Graduation, hosted by the SAGE Center and featuring keynote speaker President Joe Bertolino.

A Lavender Graduation recognizes the accomplishments and commencement of LGBTQ+ students. It is a 26-year-old tradition, dating back to the 1995 works of Dr. Ronni Sanlo at the University of Michigan.

Sanlo is a “Jewish lesbian denied the opportunity to attend the graduations of her biological students because of her sexual orientation,” Aaron Morabito, SAGE Center graduate intern, said.

While working as a professor, Sanlo saw the struggles of her LGBTQ+ students in higher academia. After her own experience with her children’s graduations, she worked with the University of Michigan to host the first Lavender Graduation in 1995, with just three students.

“Lavender is the combination of the pink triangle gay men were forced to wear in concentration camps and black triangle designating lesbians as political prisoners in Nazi Germany,” Morabito said.

“The LGBTQ community civil rights movement took these symbols of hatred and combined them to make symbols of color and pride.”

The graduation is a complement to the university’s formal commencement ceremony, not an alternative, and participation is optional. Students may collect the regalia (a lavender cord, rainbow tassel, and lapel pins) without participating in the ceremony. This year, they were also given the opportunity to participate in-person or remotely.

Biographies written by each student were read by volunteers, and if they chose to attend, they were welcomed on-stage.

“I’m really proud of the work we have done here and that we continue to do for our queer community,” Bertolino said.

“When I was a student,” he said later when discussing the changes in LGBTQ+ civil rights, “the thought of being ‘out’ and walking across stage to get your degree was unheard of.”

Bertolino identified himself as a gay man. He has been married to his husband, Bill, for 28 years. They share a son and two grandchildren, with a third on the way.

“Anything related to the queer community equaled ‘no.’ And so to stand here, almost 35 years later, and to know queer equals ‘yes,’ is really something to celebrate.”

The LGBTQ+ and queer community has faced stigma over the decades. In the United States, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s created cultural misconceptions of gay men. In 1969, LGBTQ+ people, especially transgender women of color, sex workers and lesbians, rioted at the Stonewall Inn in New York. The riots were sparked by decades of police brutality and laws which targeted homosexuality, wearing clothes of the ‘opposite sex’ and other LGBTQ+ identities and customs.

“There are a whole bunch of people, way before me, who paved the way for me to be here and with understanding that history comes responsibility,” said Bertolino. “I ask you not to take that for granted.”

Bertolino discussed his journey towards accepting his own sexuality,coming out to his friends, family and eventually pursuing his career in higher education.

Chloe Lecy, English major and Lavender graduate, said she participated in the ceremony for two reasons.

The first was to graduate with two of my closest friends at SCSU who also identify in the LGBT+ community. Because we belong to different disciplines, we are unfortunately unable to graduate all together. Lavender Graduation gave us the opportunity to celebrate who we all are, as well as celebrate our accomplishments together.”

The second, she said, is because she is “bisexual; however, I never had the opportunity to be open about my sexuality with anyone outside of my friend group. As I approach the end of my undergraduate career, I want to begin to learn how to come to terms with my identity and learn how to celebrate myself as a member of the LGBT+ community.”

Lecy is one of the eight 2021 graduates recognized in the ceremony. In her time at the university, she received the English Literary Studies Essay Award, the Outstanding Women and Gender Studies award and was a Dean’s List student.

“Participating in Lavender Graduation allows individuals like myself to celebrate how far they’ve come despite facing barriers as people in the LGBT+ community. Being able to overcome four plus years in the once-exclusive institution of higher education is worth celebrating,” said Lecy. “I am thankful that the SAGE Center provides the opportunity for individuals to celebrate their accomplishments.”

Photo credit: Joaquin Selmski

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