A Monumental Milestone: Spelman College Celebrates Its First-Ever Lavender Graduation

by Chauna Lawson

In the midst of over five-hundred anti-LGBTQ+ bills, and Affirmative Action being gutted by the Supreme Court, a shining thread of hope sparkles from the HBCU community.

Spelman College recently celebrated its first EVER Lavender Graduation Ceremony. While this may not seem important to some, this is a monumental milestone for the HBCU and LGBTQ+ communities alike. Spelman is a prestigious institution that has educated some of the most brilliant minds the world has ever seen, from Alice Walker to Coretta Scott King.

To intentionally create space for people who are under attack in states like Georgia, and every level of government, is truly an act of resistance.

Historical Context Matters

The Lavender Graduation tradition stemmed from an incident where Dr. Ronni Sanlo, a Jewish lesbian, was denied access to her children’s college graduation because of her sexual orientation. The first Lavender Graduation ceremony was held at the University of Michigan in 1995 with three (3) graduates. By 2001, over 45 institutions had adopted the tradition.

HBCUs have served as a “safe space” for African Americans and other marginalized groups since the establishment of the first institution, Cheyney University, in 1837. Black LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff have revolutionized these campuses at the organizational level since the 1960s, and at the individual level since their inception (Lucy Diggs Slowe, Bayard Rustin, etc.).

Bowie State University was the first HBCU to open a Gender and Sexualities Diversity Center and the first to have Queer Studies courses approved on their campus.

Still, the Black LGBTQ+ movement would not receive substantial support at the institutional level until much later. Student alliance groups were formed in the 1960s and 70s, but Lavender graduation ceremonies are a new phenomenon at HBCUs. Howard University, home of the oldest LGBTQ+ club at any HBCU (C.A.S.C.A.D.E.), just had its first Lavender Graduation in 2021.
Out of One-Hundred Three (103) active HBCUs, only five (5) of them have brick and mortar LGBTQ+ resource centers. It is imperative that higher education institutions explicitly recognize the unique challenges LGBTQ+ students and faculty face. This is especially true for HBCUs, most of which are in what is known as "The Bible Belt".

Lavender Grows at Spelman

Spelman’s Inaugural Lavender Graduation was organized by Mrs. Melanie Cason and rising senior Sydney Jael.

Mrs. Cason is a member of the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) HBCU Inclusive Excellence cohort; a distinguished group of HBCU faculty and staff dedicated to enhancing policies and practices that welcome LGBTQ+ folk. Mrs. Cason currently serves as Spelman's Student Engagement Manager and LGBTQ+ Liaison.

Miss Jael attended HRC’s 2022 National HBCU Leadership Summit, an annual multi-day forum that focuses on empowering young LGBTQ+ leaders to be change agents on their campus.

Both Cason and Jael utilized the tools and resources they were given at HRC to conceptualize, plan, and implement this historic event.

Establishing Queer presence at Spelman has been decades in the making. Dr. Evelynn Hammond, a visiting professor from Harvard University and Spelman graduate, spoke candidly of the many obstacles she faced as Queer Black Woman scholar and later as a lecturer. The likes of esteemed professor Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall also laid the groundwork for Black Queer studies on HBCU campuses.

Keo Ruiz-O’Neal, Spelman alum and manager of the Trans Justice Initiative

HRC’s own Keo Ruiz-O’Neal, Spelman alum and manager of the Trans Justice Initiative proudly stated, “This is not the Spelman I graduated from,” regarding the overarching shift in favor of equity and inclusion. In a full circle moment, Dr. Hammond and Mr. Ruiz-O’Neal received the inaugural Pauli Murray Award and Audre Lorde Award, respectively.

Surely, this benchmark of an event would not be possible without the fortitude of courageous and dedicated leaders like them.

A Moment to Cherish Forever

The ceremony was a gorgeous display of Black feminist thought in action, adorned with a traditional African libation ceremony conducted by Minister Whitney Baisden-Bond and Sister Omelika Kuumba, a pinning ceremony complete with official HRC HBCU lapel pins, and a lively reception with a student DJ and delicious hors d’oeuvres. Special guest speakers included Spelman’s 11th President Dr. Helene Gayle, Vice President of Students Affairs Dr. Daryl Holloman, Dr. M. Bahati Kuumba.

The sixteen (16) graduating LGBTQ+ seniors present at the ceremony were awarded the inaugural bell hooks award for distinguished student leadership. Spelman’s first ever Lavender Graduation was an elegant display of Black Excellence, Black Joy, LGBTQ+ Pride and HBCU Pride. Spaces and traditions such as this are nothing short of sacred.
Celebrating LGBTQ+ accomplishments, culture, and identities, does not diminish the HBCU experience. In fact, it elevates it to prophetic heights. The Black LGBTQ+ experience is just as much a part of the Black experience as cast iron cornbread and double-Dutch.
It is about time these change agents got the flowers they deserve.

The Time is Now

HBCUs have a unique and imperative opportunity to lean into their values by uplifting the most marginalized among our own. We do not sacrifice our identity when we make room for more of our own. We do, however, compromise the foundation upon which these institutions stand when we remain silent or worse.

More than ever, we have the tools and resources to dismantle white supremacy from the inside out. Historically Black institutions must continue to embody the change we want to see, or risk losing themselves sooner than they think. Until all of us are free, none of us are free.