Spelman's Lavender Graduation / Photo courtesy of HRC

Lavender Graduation and its History

Lavender is an important symbol of reclamation and empowerment in LGBTQ history. Combining the black triangle that designated lesbians as political prisoners in Nazi Germany and the pink triangle that gay men were forced to wear in concentration camps creates lavender, which became a symbol of resistance during the queer rights movement during the 20th century.

Now, the color and the flower can be seen on graduation stoles and are often the main theme of Lavender Graduations, an annual commencement tradition honoring LGBTQ graduates and recognizing students’ accomplishments, preferred names, and pronouns. Official ceremonies may not respect or acknowledge a student’s identity, rendering an already impersonal tradition completely dismissive.

In 1995 at the University of Michigan, an openly lesbian member of staff, Ronni Sanlo, was not allowed to attend her children’s graduation due to her sexual orientation and created the first Lavender Graduation in response. That same year, President Clinton signed the executive order that ended the ban on security clearances for gay workers.

Lavender Graduations are often student-led, more personal gatherings than the official commencement, and usually held on the same weekend.

A rising senior at Prairie View A&M University, who wished to remain anonymous, looks forward to her Lavender Graduation in 2025.

“The Lavender Graduation has become one of the most valued traditions of PV Spectrum [a student organization group] for me,” she told Georgia Voice. “Next year, I get to be one of the honored graduates as my undergraduate years come to an end, and I am extremely excited to receive my special stole.”

She also spoke about the importance of honoring and celebrating LGBTQ students as anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation spread across the country. The Trevor Project bill tracker currently reports 633 active anti-LGBTQ bills.

“As LGBTQ families grow and anti-LGBTQ legislation spreads, it’s important that we create spaces where LGBTQ families can celebrate their graduates free of hate and discrimination,” she said.

Spelman College celebrated its first Lavender Graduation this year, joining forces with Morehouse College to celebrate 25 students at a combined ceremony on May 6, supported by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) HBCU Program.

The HRC Foundation’s HBCU Program is the only national project that partners with historically Black colleges and universities to establish an LGBTQ-inclusive campus climate.

The HBCU Program arose out of a need to support LGBTQ students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) after two violent, anti-LGBTQ incidents occurred at two prominent HBCUs in 2004. Shortly after the incidents, HRCF convened a dynamic group of HBCU LGBTQ student-leaders committed to advocating for LGBTQ inclusion and social justice on campuses and in their communities.

Leslie Hall, Director of the HBCU Program, spoke about the necessity for Black, queer spaces and celebrations, like Lavender Graduations, in an interview with Georgia Voice.

“W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of ‘double consciousness’ is that we understand our lives and identities as both LGBTQ people and Black people, which are double marginalizations,” Hall said. “Lavender Graduations allow LGBTQ people to be authentic while celebrating this academic milestone in an environment/ceremony that truly embraces them.”

Associate Director of the HBCU Program Chauna Lawson is passionate about creating safe spaces for Black students, on and off campus. In 2018, Lawson founded the HBCU Convention, where “Black geeks-at-large” and HBCU students are encouraged to be authentically nerdy.

“A big reason why I started the HBCU Convention was because I saw the vitality of the Black community coming together in kinship for the sake of a unique experience, we can call our own,” Lawson said. “It is essential that Black institutions be included in this collective action.”

“Both [cosplay and drag] are unapologetic forms of self-expression.” Lawson continued. “There are essentially no rules in either art form. The various forms of media, literature, and events that inspire cosplayers and drag artists often have storylines with sociopolitical underpinnings…As such, many conventions champion inclusion and belonging…All of these spaces are essential environments for people to be celebrated for all of who they are rather than just bits and pieces.”

Visit hrc.org/resources/lavender-graduation and hrc.org/our-work/the-hbcu-program to learn more and see which institutions participate. Learn more about HBCU Con at hbcucon.org.