Commencement at Mary Baldwin University in recent years has become an avenue to celebrate tradition that honors the school’s diversity. In recent years, the institution has added military ceremonies to recognize the inclusion of the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership and Ajani, to honor those who have shown a commitment to diversity.
This year, the college held a lavender graduation May 8 in an overflowing Miller Chapel, joining the ranks of colleges and universities around the country who honor college seniors who have dedicated a significant part of their college tenure to supporting and advocating for the LGBTA community.
Kathy McCleaf, professor of health and studies of gender and sexuality, delivered the keynote address, inspiring 20 Mary Baldwin seniors, numerous guests, faculty, staff, and family members with an extraordinary historical account of Mary Baldwin’s path towards embracing the LGBTA community. She recounted the first meeting of SOULS (Sisters Out and Understanding and Loving Sisters) in 1994, Mary Baldwin’s Coming Out Week in 2006, the establishment of the sexuality and gender studies curriculum in 2013, among other milestones.
“Identity development, personal growth, learning about others and oneself, visibility, alliance, facing oneself in a way that allows one to comfortably face others with authenticity, and pride are the components connected to the phenomenon of standing under the rainbow,” McCleaf told the crowd. “The rainbow symbolizes hope — hope after a storm, the pot of gold, and the colors of the universe and stands as a representation of a people’s passion for life lived to the fullest. LGBT pride is displayed when the rainbow flag is flown.”
Students Alexandra Ellmauer and Nichole Kennedy were bestowed the Community Engagement Award, which honored their meaningful contributions to the Mary Baldwin University community and creative approaches to resolving conflict. Kristia Vasiloff was awarded the Academic Achievement Award due to her unwavering academic advocacy and continued research on behalf of transgender youth. Abagail Ramey was also honored during the ceremony for her diligent work throughout her senior year to plan and implement the lavender graduation program.
Finally, the crowd stood to honor McCleaf as she was awarded the Project Safe Zone Award and was named an honorary lavender graduate. Each graduate was given a lavender pin to be worn during Commencement.
“It was superb,” said Professor of Philosophy Rod Owen, about the program. “Not only was it exceptionally well organized with attention to many logistical details, but it was also imbued with the best spirit of Mary Baldwin University.”
According to the Human Rights Campaign, lavender is a combination of the pink triangle that gay men were forced to wear in the concentration campus and the black triangle designating lesbians as political prisoners in Nazi Germany. The LGBT civil rights movement took these symbols and of hatred and combined them to make symbols and color of pride and community. Ronni Sanlo, a Jewish lesbian, created the lavender graduation ceremony after she was denied the opportunity to attend the graduations of her biological children because of her sexual orientation. It was through this experience that she came to understand the pain felt by her students. Encouraged by the Dean of Students at the University of Michigan, Sanlo designed the first lavender graduation ceremony in 1995.