Lavender Graduation: The History and What it Means to Daemen

By Cameron Enders, out and about section editor

Lavender’s roots in the history of queer struggles for equality and acceptance can be traced back to the 7th-century BCE Greek poet Sappho, who wrote of women adorning themselves with crowns of purple flowers.

While some contention remains over the sexuality of the poet, her legacy remains an important part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Her own name led to the term sapphic being used to describe women being attracted to other women, and her home island of Lesbos being the origin of lesbian.

While her poem was about lilacs rather than lavender, it inspired a tradition of purple flowers, and the color itself is representative of queer relationships.

The color was further cemented into queer culture with Oscar Wilde reminiscing on “purple hours” to represent the time he would spend with men.

But the biggest instance of lavender being linked to queer romance comes from the biography of Abraham Lincoln, written by Carl Sanburg. Sanburg wrote that Lincoln and close friend Joshua Speed had “streaks of lavender, spots soft as May violets” in the two’s younger years.

At the time, streaks of lavender were a widely used term to describe effeminate men, with connotations of homosexuality. This was left out of the abridged version of Lincoln’s biography, as even the notion of homosexual activity was highly scandalous.

In 1953, President Eisenhower passed Executive Order 10450, which barred LGBTQIA+ people from being employed by the federal government and subjected all employees to being investigated for “immoral” conduct.

This time has come to be known as the lavender scare by historians, as there was a movement in the government to purge the civil service of queer individuals out of a fear that they were immoral and would tempt good people away from God.

From this, and other continuous efforts by politicians, churches, and lobbyist groups to erase queer people, came a time of open defiance for many. In 1969, many women wore lavender sashes and armbands during the march from Washington Square Park to the Stonewall Inn in New York City to commemorate the Stonewall riots the month before.

Yet lavender’s importance in protesting anti-queer legislation and rhetoric did not stop there. Another famous case comes from a group of women who interrupted a meeting of the Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970 wearing hand-dyed purple shirts with the phrase “lavender menace” written on them.

A phrase stolen from Betty Friedan, president of the National Organization for Women, who used it to denounce lesbians from the organization. The women interrupted the meeting to open a conversation about lesbians as a part of the feminist movement.

In 1974, two artists, Daniel Thaxton and Bernie Toale, created a series of ads for the Gay Media Action-Advertising in Boston. These ads featured a lavender rhino with a heart painted on its side to represent the struggles queer people faced, feeling like there was something wrong with them.

But as the group was hoping to launch the ads, Boston’s Metro Transit Advertising raised the prices three times. A public outcry from citizens claiming homosexuality was not a public service made it harder for the group to get their ads to run.

So, they decided to create a life-size paper mâché rhino to “attend” the pride march, with many people wearing shirts and pins of the rhino as well.

With the history of lavender being used as a symbol for queer uprising and rebellion in heteronormative systems, Dr. Ronni Sanlo launched the first lavender graduation in 1995 at the University of Michigan.

Sanlo was the campus’s LGBT Campus Resource Center director. This first graduation honored the achievements of only three LGBTQIA+ graduates but would mark the beginning of a tradition that over 200 colleges and universities continue.

One such institution is Daemen, which hosted its first lavender graduation on May 5, 2022. The ceremony was held in the Alumni Lounge in the Yurtchuk Student Center, where it has continued to be held since.

Much like the very first lavender graduation, the ceremony was meant to honor the accomplishments and celebrate the identities of queer students who were graduating.

According to Jordan Printup, Assistant Director of Inclusive Learning and Coordinator of Vision for Success, “it’s typically been a smaller event. Graduates receive a little gift bag and are given a lavender cord for graduation that they can wear if they so choose to.”

When asked about why she wanted to participate in the event, Emily Weaver, an MBA student (2025), said, “This is the first kind of opportunity to embrace oneself.”

The ceremony is open to all students who identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and all students are allowed to bring a guest to accompany them. Students who wish to be recognized sign up beforehand through the CDI. 

“I’m a big less is more person, and not to say that it is less, but I think that it is a very well thought out, very genuine ceremony that’s usually very intimate,” Weaver said.

This year’s event occurred on May 1, and featured both alumni and undergraduate student speakers who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community before the cording ceremony. 

“I think it was important to see what future me is going to look like, and it is a slight encouragement for who I am as a person,”  Deborah Periannan, psychology (2024), said. “I think it was really sweet to see everyone come together and it was really heartwarming.”

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