Lavender and Women and Gender Studies Graduation celebrates community

by Anne Reynolds

Lavender and Women and Gender Studies Graduation celebrates community
Holly Mason Badra receives the Rose Pascarell & Ric Chollar Professional Service Award

A few weeks prior to Mason’s Commencement, the atrium of Horizon Hall hosted Mason's 2022 Lavender and Women and Gender Studies Graduation. The occasion celebrated LGBTQ+ students, allies, graduates of the Women and Gender Studies (WGST) program, and people who identified with these programs during their time at Mason. Twenty graduates were recognized for their hard work and tenacity in achieving their academic goals in the face of a global pandemic, as well as to honor their contributions to Mason’s community.

Lavender graduation ceremonies originated at the University of Michigan in 1995, said Josh Kinchen, director of Mason’s LGBTQ+ Resources Center. “Dr. Ronnie Sanlo was the person. She was the director at the time of the University of Michigan Spectrum Center, which is the oldest LGBTQ+ resource center in the country. Actually,” he added, “my predecessor, [School of Integrative Studies faculty member] Ric Chollar, who founded our center in 2001, was their graduate assistant…that’s why he knew about Lavender Graduation when he started that program here at Mason back on May 14, 2009.”

Now, over 200 colleges and universities hold Lavender Graduations. Mason’s LGBTQ+ Resources Center has done so since 2009, and has welcomed the collaboration with WGST since 2015.

“It’s fundamentally important to have a ceremony that recognizes LGBTQ+ students specifically,” said Kinchen. “Historically, institutions have not always been supportive of LGBTQ+ folk. That can relate to things systematically, where the only thing on record is your legal name… and if you don't feel like you have a connection to your department or your college or the university, you have somewhere to celebrate this very important milestone with us.”

“Students, and even faculty and staff, can draw a lot of strength from having those concrete ways of identifying with something that they all belong to together,” said Anu Aneja, director of the Women and Gender Studies program.

Mason’s Lavender Graduation includes its own set of traditions, some of which reflect the original celebrations at the University of Michigan. “We give a lavender honor cord – lavender being the color of LGBTQ+ empowerment,” said Kinchen. “That color was reclaimed,” he noted, from the McCarthy era “Lavender Scare,” when a federal government purge led to around 5,000 federal agency employees losing their jobs based on their sexuality. “We’re reclaiming this as something to be proud of and it makes us powerful.” Graduates also receive rainbow tassels that may be worn on mortarboard or tam hats at commencement ceremonies.

The 2022 event was the first held in person since 2019. Two graduates, Jood Alkibsy and Jackson Kair, were recognized with the Feminist Leadership Award, given to graduating seniors who demonstrate scholarly excellence and activist leadership in the WGST program. Holly Mason Badra, MFA ’17, received the Rose Pascarell & Ric Chollar Professional Service Award, which honors staff and administrative faculty who work to advance the well-being of Mason’s LGBTQ+ community. Badra is the graduate admissions coordinator in the Department of English and completed a graduate certificate in higher education administration in spring, 2022. Melody Kujat, who is earning a master of arts degree in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in women and gender studies, received the Outstanding Project Award for the WGST program.

Anu Aneja, David Powers Corwin, Josh Kinchen
Anu Aneja, director of the Women and Gender Studies Program, David Powers Corwin, associate director, and Josh Kinchen, director of the LGBTQ+ Resource Center (photo by Sarah Holland)

In addition, the WGST program and the LGBTQ+ Resources Center presented a new award to recognize the contributions of faculty whose teaching and/or scholarship centers the experiences of LGBTQ+ people and communities, focuses on gender and sexuality, and/or grounds their pedagogy in queerness, justice, and liberation. The Dr. David Powers Corwin Teaching and Scholarship Award is named in honor of Mason’s first LGBTQ+ minor program coordinator, and Corwin themself was named the inaugural winner. They are now the associate director of the WGST program, and hold a joint faculty appointment with WGST and in the School of Integrative Studies. “This is their last year as associate director for the program and they’re transitioning into a fully teaching role for the fall,” said Aneja. “They’ve done such wonderful work with the Women and Gender Studies Center and the student development and leadership initiatives.”

Kinchen and Aneja hope to continue to see Mason's Lavender Graduation  grow, perhaps coordinating it with other cultural ceremonies held in the spring. And above all, they appreciate the university's support for their students.

“Mason is a unique place in how LGBTQ inclusive it is,” said Kinchen. “From an executive level all the way through the student level…there’s a level of empowerment that is incredibly important.”