Lavender Graduation celebrates LGBT students at BYU
It began to rain Saturday at the first-ever Lavender Graduation for Brigham Young University’s LGBT students, but most in attendance were used to proceeding in less than ideal conditions.
Lavender Graduation ceremonies are conducted nationwide to honor LGBT students as a complement to the standard commencement ceremonies offered by colleges and universities. This practice was created by Ronni Sanlo, a lesbian author, educator and advocate who was denied entry to her own children’s graduation.
Now, over 200 universities have sanctioned annual Lavender Graduations and hold them on campus, but this unsanctioned celebration for BYU students was sponsored by The OUT Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the empowerment of LGBT people, and Guru’s Cafe, a Provo restaurant. Due to the weather, the festivities took place in the garages of a Provo home.
In all, 22 graduating LGBT students were gifted with lavender graduation cords that they can wear with their caps and gowns at BYU’s official commencement on Thursday. According to Roni Jo Draper, a former professor of multicultural education at BYU who helped to plan and host the event, the cords are meant to symbolize the extra work LGBT students had to put in to graduate from a university that does not fully accept them.
“I want them to know that we see them and we know the extra work that they had to do to be able to complete their studies as LGBTQ people,” Draper said. “Not because of their sexuality, or their gender identities, but because society has made being in those bodies extra difficult. My queerness isn’t a challenge for me, the way society reacts to my queerness is a challenge for me.”
According to Tate, last name withheld for privacy and safety reasons, the Lavender Graduation celebration was a more genuine expression of appreciation than other university-sanctioned events, most of which felt performative.
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but it’s something I really appreciate more than anything else BYU has put on for the graduates because I know here it’s like unconditional,” they said. “I show up here and they’re like ‘we’re proud of you, and we’re actually proud of you,’ and at all the other BYU sponsored events they’re like ‘we’re proud of you, let me talk about all the things that I don’t actually like you for.'”
Tate, who will be graduating from BYU with a bachelor’s in psychology, stated that they were forced to adjust their presentation depending where they were on campus for fear of negative reactions.
“When I was at home, when I was out with my friends, that was always a very safe place. But when I was in class I knew that it was always a little risky, I’m kind of dumb though so I was willing to take that risk,” they said. “People say it’s the smart thing to be careful, it’s the smart thing to not tell anybody because then there’s no way that you’ll get kicked out.”
According to Sarah Chan, who will be graduating from BYU with a bachelor’s in environmental science, the removal of a section in the honor code on “homosexual behavior” regarding same-sex intimacy in early 2020 — later followed by a letter backtracking that removal — made it hard for her to feel wanted as a student in Provo.
“With events like that going on, it’s hard to feel like BYU as an organization really wants you to be there, or wants to celebrate you being there,” she said.
Chan hopes that eventually the Lavender Graduation could be sanctioned by BYU in the future to show appreciation for graduates, but she doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.
“Events like this are just ways to show support and love, and I think that at BYU that doesn’t always feel like the message they want to send out. I feel like in the minds of administration they’re not wanting to be hateful necessarily, I think it’s kind of unintentional,” she said. “I don’t know that I could see it happening in the near future.”
According to Draper, one of the biggest roadblocks she experienced while planning the Lavender Graduation for BYU students was finding the graduating students to invite, as many of them feel the need to hide their identities. However, she hopes that the Lavender Graduation could play a part in helping them feel seen and loved.
“I want them to know that they’re valuable, that they’re valued, that other people in the community see them and value them,” Draper said.