Lavender Celebration honors LGBTQ students at UAB
Maigen Sullivan wanted a way to bring together people across the University of Alabama at Birmingham to celebrate the accomplishments of LGBTQ students. It was 2017. She was a graduate student.
“We created an awards ceremony recognition to go along with the graduation recognition ceremony,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan and others planned UAB’s first Lavender Celebration.
Lavender Celebrations, or as they’re often called Lavender Graduations, have been a tradition for LGBTQ student groups on college campuses since the 1990s. They recognize the extra hurdles LGBTQ students may have faced on the way to earn their diplomas. The first one was in 1995 at the University of Michigan and what started as a small ceremony with just three students has now expanded to over 200 schools in the United States.
UAB’s multicultural and diversity programs hosted its annual Lavender Celebration on April 15.
It included awards in the areas of advocacy, inclusion, leadership and initiative. One of the awards, the Glenda Elliott LGBTQ Advocacy Award, is named after a former UAB faculty member who was one of the founders of LGBTQ groups on campus.
This year’s gathering was the first in person since the pandemic. Graduate assistant for LGBTQ programs Daniel Blackwood, who led the planning, said events like this are more necessary today with new laws that target LGBTQ youth in Alabama.
“I think for us to provide this space where we say, ‘Hey, we care about you and we want to make sure that you have spaces where you feel safe seeing heard and celebrated,’ It’s just extremely impactful right now,” Blackwood said.
Sullivan and Blackwood spoke about the Lavender Celebration and its impact on students at UAB.
Maigen Sullivan, 2022 Ph.D. Graduate from UAB School of Education
“One of the things that I talk about in my current work is the need for joy. And I think that Lavender Celebration is a really great moment to lean into joy despite anything else that’s happening and a time to say that, you know, I can celebrate who I am and what I’ve done simultaneously and look at this community of people who are there with me.
“These are very important everywhere. But I think in the South they are particularly important. We hear these narratives, these stereotypes, that in order to be happy, you have to leave the Deep South. You got to go to the coast, you got to go to the big cities. You can’t stay here to thrive. And I think that these sorts of celebrations, especially when they’re happening at a large research institution in the middle of Alabama, really show that that’s not true, that there are amazing people here doing phenomenal work and that we can find community.
“It’s just really nice to see how that keeps going and it gets amplified every year. Every generation is just really getting more visible, more vocal, and it’s becoming a part of tradition here. I think that these things need to and do exist outside of the political climate like these are done for LGBTQ folks. The history is there in order to celebrate that community and that joy. And so having a respite from all of the things, you know, the struggles and the activism and the organizing is really great. But we also need to constantly be in that moment of celebration and joy and recognizing each other and connecting with each other, regardless of whether we’re winning or we’re still in the fight.”
Daniel Blackwood, UAB LGBTQ+ Programs Graduate Assistant
“I think that our LGBTQ — especially our transgender students, they’re really looking to see, you know, who cares about them right now and who’s affirming their experiences. LGBTQ students are, you know, occasionally faced with harassment or discrimination because of their queer identities. So to give them a space to say, ‘Hey, we recognize this may have been hard for you, there may have been struggles that your cisgender and straight peers did not have to face on their way to graduation,’ And so because of that, we want to really take the time to say, we are so proud of you.
“The best part of it for me is how uplifted you feel by your community in that moment. Because I like a lot of other LGBTQ students, you know, kind of had to make a choice throughout my college career to either choose protecting myself and celebrating my identity or maintaining a relationship with my family and the community that I grew up with.
“So I was really excited that I got to share the lavender planning committee this year for our first first celebration back in person. And so a joke that we kept saying you’re on the committee was we got a balloon arch for a lavender celebration. This is the first time we’ve had a balloon arch at one of our LGBTQ events. We’re moving up.”
Kyra Miles is a Report for America Corps member reporting on education for WBHM.
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity. UAB holds WBHM’s broadcast license, but our news and business departments operate independently.