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At VCU, A New Kind of Graduation

With LGBT ceremony, Liz Canfield hopes to help "students who are often rendered invisible".

Zack Budryk | April 24, 2012

Liz Canfield with a Lavender Graduation rainbow cord.

With all the pomp, circumstance and parking issues that accompany graduation season each year, it might very well start to feel like more of the same after a while. This year, however, Liz Canfield and Virginia Commonwealth University are bringing something new to the table.

Canfield, an assistant professor in VCU’s Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Department as well as one of Richmond’s leading voices on LGBT and women’s rights, has co-organized VCU’s first annual Lavender Graduation, along with a diverse committee of faculty, students and staff.

Lavender Graduation is a special graduation ceremony meant to specifically honor the achievements of VCU’s LGBT students. Students participating will receive a rainbow cord to wear as part of their graduation regalia. Although this is VCU’s first year coordinating such an event, it is not the first of its kind. “[Lavender graduations] started popping up in the mid-1990′s (the first being at the University of Michigan in 1995), but we’ve really seen them proliferate in universities across the country over the last decade,” Canfield explained. “We are joining universities like UC Davis, Columbia, Princeton, Georgetown, UCLA, and dozens of colleges and universities nationwide in this type of celebration.”

According to Canfield, such an event has been a long time coming for VCU. “The LGBT Subcommittee at VCU has wanted to do a Lavender Graduation for a while, but in 2001, a group of researchers working for Campus Pride launched their [LGBT-friendliness] climate survey,” she said. “We want VCU to be a top university for LGBTQIA students, and this survey and the recommendations from their report gave us the language and research we needed to put it through.”

Canfield gives due credit to the VCU administration, who she describes as “highly supportive” of the committee’s efforts, as well as on-campus student groups like Queer Action, who she says “have enthusiastically supported a ceremony like this, as it forges a connection between them and the university within which they study, work, and live.”

For Canfield, an event like Lavender Graduation serves an invaluable function to the university’s LGBT students. “[Lavender Graduation] increases the visibility of a group of students who are often rendered invisible,” Canfield said. “By celebrating the achievement of LGBTQIA students, the Lavender Graduation ceremony shows these students (and hopefully by extension, faculty, staff, and community members), that a connection with the LGBTQIA community is important to the institution and our larger community, that the contributions that LGBTQIA folks make to our communities and institutions are valued and encouraged.

To that end, Canfield said that she’d like to try to find a way for the event’s message to reach even high school students, at a time when efforts to promote LGBT inclusiveness in public schools have been met with controversy and accusations of indoctrination. Canfield explained that other Lavender Graduation ceremonies have gone as far as inviting local high schoolers. “Because this is VCU’s first, we were unable to extend ourselves but so much, but I hope to see it grow to attend to the larger community,” she said. “Being able to change the schooling experience for our youth means that we need to make youth a priority in our organizing, as our youth (and our elders) are some of the more vulnerable people in our communities.”

“Lavender Graduation… is a way to give us a ceremony for our achievements as LGBTQIA people, including making it through 4+ years of heterosexist courses and curriculums that don’t typically acknowledge our existence at all,” said Morgan Krug of the VCU chapter of Queer Action. “VCU has joined other progressive schools by having a Lavender Graduation ceremony, and I’m really proud of this.”

VCU Lavender Graduation will be held on Friday, April 27 at 5:00 p.m., at VCU campus’ Scott House.