Alexandra Billings spoke at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s recent Lavender Graduation. Photo by M. Alejos
For the third year in a row, the University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC’s) Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC) hosted a Lavender Graduation. When it first started in 2007, the event was designed to give LGBTQA students a way to celebrate their graduation and academic achievements while recognizing that their sexual and gender identities were integral to their educational experiences and deserving of celebration and recognition. Since then, Lavender Graduation has expanded from 10 students to 30; this year’s keynote speaker was trans actor/entertainer Alexandra Billings.
Liz Thomson, interim director of GSC, spoke to Windy City Times as she was putting the final touches on the preparations. She said that the event is meant for undergraduates, graduates and professional students across the campus and is also open to those from UIC who might be visiting or commuting from Chicago. The event began when GSC officers looked at the 2007 Advocate guide to colleges and realized that they were lacking a lavender graduation ceremony, something that is common at other schools and universities. “Otherwise,” said Thomson, “The only formal ways for LGBTQA students to get together are in October, national coming-out month.” The event also gives students a school year-end celebration and helps them keep in touch with young alumni.
Lavender Graduation is not as formal as the school’s larger graduation ceremony—students do not wear their robes for this occasion—but it is nonetheless packed with meaningful gestures. Students are each given a rainbow tassel and a rainbow diploma. Thomson said that many of them wear the tassels to the formal ceremony. Every student can bring a special guest who might be a mentor/advisor to him or her, and the diploma is first handed to that person, who then hands it to the student. As Thomson put it, “This is more of a cultural ceremony. We are recognizing their academic achievements and that they survived the university system along with the attendant homophobia and heterosexism. As good as UIC is, we still have challenges.”
Thomson also pointed out the advantages of this smaller and more intimate event over the larger one: “This is different for them because [at the bigger ceremony] they don’t feel they know anybody, and they may not be able to pay for a cap and gown. Here they go to a ceremony with a few people whom they know well. There are students I’ve known on a day-to-day basis.”
One such student is Jorge Mena, who is working on a double major in anthropology and Latin American studies. A senior next year, Mena is being honored this year with a $500 scholarship from the UIC Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues. Mena is out as queer and as an undocumented student, and his research and activism reflect his multiple identities. He is a member of Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL), a local group that began as part of the movement to successfully halt the deportation of Rigo Padilla, also an undocumented UIC student. His current work, under the mentorship of anthropology adjunct assistant professor Ruth Gomberg-Munoz, looks at post-9/11 immigration labor issues and the rise of youth activist groups like IYJL. Mena, who spoke to the paper on the day of Lavender Graduation, was also involved with the organizing of the first Dream Gala, a fundraiser for undocumented UIC students who cannot access federal financial aid. He plans to use most of his scholarship money to pay for tuition.
Mena said that the GSC had given him a sense of community and amenities like the Rainbow Resource Room, which provides a space for students to meet as well as computers for them to use. Being out as both undocumented and as queer has “taught me to be more open-minded, to deal with all these secrets of being gay and undocumented. That’s why it makes sense to talk about “coming out of the shadows” [a slogan that IYJL has popularized among undocumented students] —it’s all so personal for me. It’s taught me to be more accepting of people.”
John D’Emilio, a scholar of gay history and politics as well as gender and women’s studies, spoke of the event’s historical significance. He said that, “Just half a century ago, students would get expelled from college for being gay. The idea that a university has a ceremony that recognizes the sexual and gender identity of a student and celebrates it is just wonderful.” He went on to add, “UIC is a very queer-friendly place. Between the GSC and the Chancellor’s Committee and the many courses available, students have many different spaces where they can come together. But it’s very special that this important ceremony exists to recognize their queerness.”