Lavender Ceremony for the Class of 2022

What began as a small gathering in 2017 a has developed into the Lavender Ceremony.

Six years ago, a group of students at Mount Holyoke who identified as LGBTQ+ approached the College’s counseling center. These students had a request: They wanted to host a graduation ceremony for their community.

What began in 2017 as an intimate, informal celebration for about 20 students has developed into the Lavender Ceremony — a student-coordinated, administrative-led ceremony ahead of Commencement to recognize Mount Holyoke’s broader LGBTQ+ community.

Close to 200 students signed up for this year’s Lavender Ceremony, reflecting the supportive and visible community that now exists at the College — and for some students, may not yet exist outside of Mount Holyoke, said Latrina Denson, associate dean of students for community and inclusion.

“For some folks, they may not have the opportunity to be openly who they are with their family [and] loved ones in their communities,” Denson said. “But in this space, they get to say, ‘This is my gender or my sexuality. This is who I am, and I get to be that. I get to celebrate my success and how I graduated from Mount Holyoke in four years.’”

Acknowledging every individual’s authenticity, as well as their accomplishments and achievements, is part of what motivated the creation of the nation’s first known Lavender Graduation Ceremony at the University of Michigan in 1995. Dr. Ronni Sanlo, a faculty member there, established the event after she was denied the right to attend her children’s graduations due to her identity as an out lesbian. In the years since, more than 200 colleges and universities have adopted a version of a Lavender Ceremony to support and be inclusive of their LGBTQ+ students.

And that includes Mount Holyoke. This year’s event had a much more ceremonial aura to it than in years prior, Denson said, especially given how the pandemic impacted in-person events over the last couple of years. The ceremony included the distribution of lavender tassels, and it featured a student speaker, faculty speaker and other remarks. 

Mary McClintock ’78, vice president of Mount Holyoke’s queer alum association Lyon’s Pride, was one of this year’s speakers. McClintock spoke about about how she realized she was a lesbian as an 18-year-old sophomore at Mount Holyoke. But at the time, McClintock said, there was absolutely no visible presence of a lesbian or broader LGBTQ+ community on campus, let alone an opportunity to acknowledge them during graduation. 

McClintock also told a story about a friend of hers who, in the 1990s, also attended Mount Holyoke and identified as a lesbian. This friend dreamed of being an Episcopalian priest at a time when the church had only recently ordained women and told McClintock she needed to “be careful,” lest anyone find out her identity. To that McClintick responded, “My experience is that it takes lots of energy to be an out lesbian, and it takes lots of energy to be a closeted lesbian. It isn’t a question of one way being easier or harder. I think that what you need to do is figure out how you want to spend your energy.”

Speaking to the crowd at the Lavender Ceremony, McClintock said that this friend has now lived out her dream — to be a priest and an out lesbian — and has credited her time at Mount Holyoke, as well as her friends, for helping her realize who she was and for helping her live a life of integrity.

“In your precious last days at Mount Holyoke, and in the years ahead as you follow your dreams, you’ll be walking in the path of many who were brave before you,” McClintock said during her speech. “My message to you is: dream wilder!”

These generational differences within the LGBTQ+ community added to the pride of the Lavender Ceremony. The event was meant to acknowledge students; however, faculty and staff, particularly those who are a part of the campus’s Trans- and Gender-Nonconforming Working Group (TGNC), are also heavily invested in it for its significance, said Denson. They acted as sounding boards for the students involved in this year’s Lavender Committee, helped to organize the event alongside them and were the ones who handed out the lavender tassels.

Andrea Lawlor, Clara Willis Phillips Assistant Professor of English, also spoke at the ceremony and said that they hoped the students who signed up for this year’s ceremony would take from it the value of friendship — because the connections they made at Mount Holyoke can continue to anchor them beyond the College.

“I hope that the students feel excited about going out into the rest of their lives after graduation and that they really understand that one of the joys of queer and trans life is community and friendships,” Lawlor said. “One of the good parts of life is that they get to have this kind of community.”

Lawlor noted in their speech that although people often tell graduating students that they’re about to enter the “real world,” the community at the Lavender Ceremony had already been through the ups and downs of the real world. Lawlor listed them off: a pandemic, widespread grief and loss, wildfires, transphobic legislation, attacks on reproductive freedom and more. But they also noted that, at the same time, there have been “a global flowering of peoples’ movements; of uprisings against white supremacy and the carceral state; of workers’ victories; widespread mutual aid; massive changes in consciousness around gender, bodies, self-determination, consent, the earth.”

Lawlor closed their remarks with a poem from a local transgender poet, Cameron Awkward-Rich, titled “Cento Between the Ending and the End.” 

Sometimes you don’t die

when you’re supposed to

& now I have a choice

repair a world or build

a new one inside my body

a white door opens

into a place queerly brimming

gold light so velvet-gold

it is like the world

hasn’t happened

when I call out

all my friends are there

everyone we love

is still alive gathered

at the lakeside

like constellations

my honeyed kin

honeyed light

beneath the sky

a garden blue stalks

white buds the moon’s

marble glow the fire

distant & flickering

the body whole bright-

winged brimming

with the hours

of the day beautiful

nameless planet. Oh

friends, my friends—

bloom how you must, wild

until we are free. 

“That’s where I’m going to leave you,” Lawlor said at the end of their speech. “Bloom how you must, wild / until we are free.”

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