This spring, Eastern Mennonite University hosted its first Lavender Graduation to honor LGBTQ+ graduates and alumni. The event recognizes LGBTQ students of all races and ethnicities and acknowledges their achievement and contributions to the university.
The graduation ceremony was the first such ceremony among the Mennonite colleges and universities in the USA and Canada, according to Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Jackie Font-Guzmán.
And as such, it was also the culmination of several events during spring semester centering LGBTQ+ history and story — of individuals, the community, and the institution itself.
Such events are important for building community, for affirming values, and helping to heal, said Font-Guzmán in her speech welcoming the audience to the graduation.
“Rituals are one of the oldest ways to mobilize the power of community for healing,” she said “Today, through this ritual, we make the caring for our community tangible, we enact and affirm our values, we create a space of protection and safety, and we create an opportunity for authentic transformation. Students, you have made this space possible through your leadership and passion. EMU is a better place today because of you.”
The student-led organization Safe Space has long been contributing catalysts to this groundswell of activity seeking to celebrate, support and listen to the LGBTQ community at EMU.
In October 2021, Safe Space and EMU’s new Office of DEI helped to sponsor another inaugural event — the university’s first celebration of National Queer History Month. The evening lecture featured author, activist, and public historian Gregory Samantha Rosenthal, PhD, speaking on their book “Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City” (University of North Carolina Press, 2021).
Also beginning his groundbreaking work last fall was graduate student Conner Suddick.
Suddick, a second-year student at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, was an early recipient in the first cycle of DEI Inclusive Excellence Grants.
Read more about his work on two innovative and groundbreaking projects centering LGBTQ community and history below.
Approximately 100 graduates and alumni were honored in front of a standing-room-only audience during a late afternoon Lavender Graduation ceremony at the Discipleship Center. The program included two student speakers, sharing their stories about being a part of the LGBTQ+ community, and representing undergraduates and graduates. Professor Kathy Evans, education professor and faculty advisor to Safe Space, gave the keynote address.
Participants were given rainbow stoles to wear during EMU Commencement ceremonies later in the week.
Graduates at EMU traditionally wear these colorful vestments, which symbolize countries or regions of the student’s intercultural travels and/or their identity. Since 2016, EMU has hosted a Donning of the Kente ceremony for graduating students of color and international students.
The first Lavender Graduation ceremony was hosted in 1995 at the University of Michigan and since spread to many universities across the United States.
LGBTQ+ Historical Collection at Sadie Hartzler Library
A new digital collection, initiated by Suddick as part of his thesis at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, shares the history of LGBTQ+ individuals at EMU through 20 oral history interviews, artwork, and approximately 200 archival documents.
Oral histories were contributed by alumni, former and current faculty and staff, and friends of EMU. From the archives, the collection includes articles from the Weather Vane student newspaper, as well as “some presidential correspondence, policy documents, and materials from publications discussing LGBTQ happenings at EMU,” according to EMU archivist Simone Horst. Horst helped to curate the archival collection, while systems librarian Audrey Shenk will continue entering materials into the library’s database.
The collection, which will expand over the 2022-23 academic year, explores personal experiences amongst the factors that contributed to controversies surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity at EMU between 1970-2015. Narrators explore their personal journeys as well as the impact of EMU’s policies related to LGBTQ+ employees and the impact of the 2014 Listening Process, which led to a change in the hiring practices to allow same-sex couples in covenanted relationships to be employed.
Suddick’s thesis is titled “At the Crossroads: Legacy, Reckoning, and Possibility between LGBTQ+ People and Eastern Mennonite University.”
The interviews highlight the “ongoing pursuit of justice at EMU” toward full inclusion of LGBTQ people, Suddick said at his thesis defense. He also cautioned that an institutional narrative of “progress” “not only obscures, but justifies, the wounds of the past in order to celebrate the progress of the present moment.”
One of the documents that will be included in the digital collection is an outcome of Suddick’s research: grounded in the principles of restorative justice and the visions of the oral history narrators, he has contributed a “resolution for institutional accountability that names commitments that EMU can make to cultivate a future of belonging for all students.”
Art project sponsored by first DEI Inclusive Excellence Grant
From April 27-May 9, Sadie Hartzler Library hosted a special art exhibit “Restoring Queer Pasts, Envisioning Queer Futures.” The multi-artist showing was the result of an arts-based community research project sponsored by the Office of DEI’s Inclusive Excellence Grants and facilitated by Suddick. Some contributions are featured in this online gallery.
The research and exhibit is the first project to be completed out of the inaugural awarding of 2022 DEI Excellence Grants.
“This is exactly the kind of project the Inclusive Excellence Grant Project seeks to fund at EMU,” said Font-Guzmán. “They bring the community together and move us forward.”
Several faculty, staff and students participated, responding over several sessions of discussion and arts creation to prompts exploring LGBTQ+ experience at EMU. Themes of hidden history and silence and silencing were explored, as well as steps toward sharing those histories, transforming silence to action, and fostering belonging.
Suddick was amazed at the level of interest among attendees to his pre-opening talk. “The energy in the room and on Zoom was very special, especially seeing how many people entered the space with gratitude, joy, and anticipation,” he said. “I am honored that people continue to approach me after the event and share their pieces of EMU LGBTQ+ history with me. I believe the overwhelmingly positive reception of this event indicates a changing culture at EMU where people are desiring an opportunity to EMU both reconcile and restore its Queer history. I hope EMU continues taking these first steps.”