The university is holding its third annual Lavender Graduation Ceremony on May 4, giving LGBTQ students the opportunity to simultaneously celebrate their graduation and their community.
Ole Miss alumna Shan Williams has personally experienced the difference Lavender Graduation can make in graduates’ lives.
“The Lavender Graduation was important to me because so very few parts of my intersectional identity (are) represented at the institution,” Williams said. “Taking up space as a queer person in the Bible Belt South is important to me.”
The first Lavender Graduation was designed by Ronni Sanlo, director emeritus of the UCLA Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center, to positively impact the lives of students like Williams. Sanlo, a lesbian, started the ceremony at the University of Michigan in 1995 with three graduates.
Sanlo said she was encouraged to create this ceremony after being prevented from attending the graduations of her biological children because of her sexual orientation.
Now, Lavender Graduation is an annual ceremony conducted at more than 175 universities to honor lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and ally students at both undergraduate and graduate levels and to acknowledge their achievements and contributions to their respective universities. Lavender Graduation is usually celebrated a week before a university’s commencement ceremony.
The University of Mississippi held its first ceremony in May 2016, following the lead of Louisiana State University, the University of Alabama and the University of Tennessee, all of which had already been conducting Lavender Graduation ceremonies on their campuses for multiple years.
“The Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement and various diversity partners on campus recognized the need, as a flagship institution, for us to get on board with Lavender Graduation,” said Jaime Cantrell, program coordinator of the Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement. “I think it’s increasingly important for LGBTQ students in Mississippi to be celebrated and recognized for staying here in this place.”
The number of graduation ceremony attendees has more than doubled since 2016’s inaugural event. According to Cantrell, there were 12 graduates in 2016 and 17 in 2017. The 2018 celebration will honor 31 graduates.
To participate, upcoming graduates register for the ceremony by filling out an online form.
Cantrell said she is already looking forward to how next year’s 2019 celebration will turn out, because the undergraduates honored that year will be part of the class whose freshman year’s terminus coincided with Ole Miss’ first Lavender Graduation.
Chancellor Vitter will speak at the event for the first time this year. Adam Sullivan, the Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement’s LGBTQ Programming and Initiatives graduate assistant, said the chancellor’s appearance will be exciting.
“We’re very fortunate to have him this year,” Sullivan said.
Other speakers this year include graduating students Regan Willis and Malik Pridgeon, who are the outgoing presidents of UM Pride Network and Queer People of Color, respectively.
Students participating in Lavender Graduation will receive a lavender cord and a certificate.
“I am thrilled to be involved with Lavender Graduation,” Willis said. “It means a lot that the university has put together a ceremony to recognize and celebrate the diversity of (the) University of Mississippi student body.”
As a transgender man, this graduation means the world to Willis because it allows him to be himself during a milestone in his life.
“Lavender Graduation is a graduation ceremony where I can be myself. My family will be at commencement, and I will be expected to dress and act in ways that don’t match who I am as a person,” Willis said. “Having a Lavender Graduation gives me the place to feel welcome as myself and to celebrate the accomplishment of graduation.”
Taylor Mitchell, who identifies as bisexual, is getting her degree in general studies and said the Lavender Graduation ceremony proves that Ole Miss is going in the right direction with inclusiveness.
“I think it’s really awesome that our school has something like Lavender Graduation. I have never heard (of) anything like it,” Mitchell said. “I think it really shows how our school is taking steps, though they are small, to being a more inclusive university.”
The ceremony will begin at 4:00 p.m. Friday in the recently opened Student Union Ballroom.