In two and a half weeks, the university will hold its first inaugural Lavender Graduation.
Lavender Graduation is a ceremony specifically designed to recognize graduating LGBTQIA+ students and allies. Point Park’s will happen from 2 to 5 p.m. in the Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Highmark Theatre on Saturday, April 23, a week before the official commencement ceremony. Students in Bachelor’s, Masters and Doctoral programs who graduated or are expected to graduate in the Fall 2021, Spring 2022, and Summer 2022 semesters are eligible to participate.
Lucas Copeland, the Program Director for the Gender and Sexuality Spectrum Alliance (GSSA) and a student enrolled in the Community Psychology Master’s Program, has played a significant role in organizing the event. He participated in Lavender Graduations during his undergraduate education at Auburn University and said the ceremony is typically an informal commencement that highlights LGBTQIA+ graduates as well as the faculty, staff and fellow students that have supported them through the years.
“That is really the big benefit of Lav Grad, is being able to celebrate with a particular group of peers that have been an important part of your life and space,” Copeland said. “And I hope that there is a community here and continues to be a community here that has that same sort of found family element where maybe you want your biological family or relatives to come to the proper graduation, but this is something … for people that have seen you grow and develop in your identity and [to] celebrate your successes and struggles because there are some unique struggles associated with being queer.”
Unique struggles were the catalyst for the first Lavender Graduation. Dr. Ronni Sanlo, who is open about being a lesbian, was barred from attending her children’s graduations in the 1990s due to her sexual orientation. In 1995, she sought to create an event the LGBTQIA+ community was welcome at, particularly for LGBTQIA+ graduates, and held the first ceremony at the University of Michigan, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). That first small ceremony of three students grew in popularity over several years, and now universities all over the nation regularly hold Lavender Graduations alongside traditional commencement ceremonies.
Assistant Director of Title IX, Equity and Inclusion Vincent Rugani said Point Park began planning its first Lavender Graduation all the way back in the 2019-2020 academic year. However, the coronavirus pandemic shuttered all campus life in the Spring 2020 semester, including regular commencement and plans for a Lavender Graduation.
“Students who were graduating that were in my class [in 2020] saw me on campus when the campus closure announcement was made, and they were so sad the event couldn’t happen,” Rugani said. “It really drove me to make it become reality.”
According to Rugani, the event has been made possible by a “It’s On Us” grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The money provided has allowed the university to secure rainbow-colored stoles for graduates and supplies for the event. Conversations between Rugani and Copeland started in the Fall 2021 semester on collaborating together on a Lavender Graduation. Additionally, the university administration formed a Lavender Graduation Committee consisting of faculty, staff and students to collect input.
Recently, Rugani has recruited others to assist him with organizing the graduation. Michael Elko, who works as a Student Success Coordinator with Tutoring Services, is the chair of the steering committee in charge of planning and executing the event.
“Being a gay man, I thought it was important to participate in this and be a part of the committee,” Elko said.
Elko said an event like the Lavender Graduation is especially important since historically, members of the LGBTQIA+ community have faced challenges in finding places to meet and spend time with others like them.
“So having an event that allows members of the community to get together and celebrate their academic achievements and their progress is very important in terms of the evolution of the gay movement and awareness,” he said. “It’s also a semi-private event, so we’re providing them with a safe environment to celebrate themselves.”
An email invitation to sign up for the Lavender Graduation was only sent to graduating students. The invitation, from the Office of Provost Dr. Michael Soto, included a link to RSVP for the ceremony on PointSync. Students have until April 10 to sign up so that organizers can determine the number of guests graduates can bring while still adhering to the venue’s capacity limit of 200 people.
Organizers said they are considering the safety of graduates by making this a semi-private event. The event is only open to Point Park LGBTQIA+ graduates and allies. Photography will be limited; participants are being asked not to take pictures of others that can be posted to social media. Instead, there will be a designated separate area where people can use Polaroid cameras so that graduates can have pictures they can take with them. Those who are questioning and/or are not open about being a part of the LGBTQIA+ community can identify themselves as allies.
The event will resemble a casual banquet. According to Elko, a slideshow with graduates’ names, pronouns, degree and major as well as a brief statement of their future plans will be displayed. Being included on the slideshow is optional, and there is an option in the PointSync form to opt in or out of the presentation; adding a photo is also not required, but those who choose that option can decide if they want their photos to have a rainbow border, a black and white border (symbolizing allyship) or a border that reflects the pride flag of their identity.
Graduates will be presented with a rainbow stole, and there will also be a few speakers, including university President Don Green, who are expected to make brief statements. A buffet and music will be a part of the ceremony.
At the Graduation Fairs earlier this semester, Elko said as many as 55 students were already interested in the idea of the Lavender Graduation, but they were still waiting on a final headcount for the ceremony.
“We have a nice response so far, but I think as we get closer to the day, we’ll have a better idea of how many will attend,” Elko said.
This article has been corrected to reflect the context for Elko’s comments.