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    Congratulations, Lavender Graduates of 2021

    By Andrea Shorter–

    It is the season of college and university graduations, and a few weeks ago I was invited by the LGBTQ student organization at my alma mater to deliver keynote remarks at its second annual Lavender graduates pre-commencement ceremony. As a now 30-plus year alumnus, I could not have been more honored and delighted at the invitation by this generation and class of students I regrettably didn’t know at all. It became clear to me that I was chosen partly because of my distinction as a lead organizer and co-founder of Whittier College’s first LGBTQ students’ organization—way back before we were LGBTQ!—in 1988.

    Yes, I know that, for more than a few readers, 1988 might as well have been yesterday compared to their college years well before the ‘80s. However, to these incredible graduates, it was also what they acknowledged as the parallels between the impacts of the burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, generations before their own births, and the impacts on their lives as young adults coming out, and coming into their own power as LGBTQ graduates during a global pandemic, which spurred their invitation to me to time travel, recount, muse, and perhaps affirm some of the affinity to the symmetries in cross-generational experiences.

    1988 is a long enough time ago, indeed. Of course, I did my personal best to recount what it was like to come out as any kind of queer young adult, and most specifically as a queer young person of color in a predominately white, conservative environment at the heights LGBTQ people were mobilizing aggressively to demand a response to HIV/AIDS. The feelings of isolation, possible threats to one’s personal safety and well-being, fear of rejection, and intense want to connect with someone—anyone—like yourself are feelings that are indelible and unforgettable to me, but eventually were overcome once I found my way to connecting with and building community to be visible, proud, and empowered.

    Few of us would have imagined that 33 years from our first gathering of 12 students off-campus as the newly formed Student Alumni Gay Alliance or SAGA that we would see the 19-year run of a popular lesbian talk show host coming to an end, a former Olympic gold medalist and perhaps most famous transwoman in the world declare her candidacy for Governor of California as a Republican (or “kinda Republican,” as she states—whatever that means), an award-winning television series about a transgender community of color in New York in its final season, and the battle for LGBTQ rights revisiting 50-year-old tropes about transgender girls taking over girls’ sports and destroying title IX as a reason to deny federal protection and equal rights for LGBTQ people.

    All of the aforementioned took place within a week of the 2021 graduation of 27 openly queer young adults at a small liberal arts college that is now proudly predominately Latinx. And, of course, all occurred during what is hopefully the tail end of imposed social distance, isolation, and physical disconnect from others like yourself during your last year in college.

    The interest and respect that these young people wanted to extend to an elder LGBTQ alumnus was certainly an honor to receive. More important is that we elders reach out to young LGBTQ people we know who are soon graduating. Let’s let them know the importance of building and thriving within communities of care, concern, and love for who they are and envision themselves to be as they now seek to empower themselves as LGBTQ people and equals in this world.

    Let’s let them know that we support their own fierceness that cannot be overshadowed, dampened, or deterred by the isolation brought on by neither the pandemic of the past year, nor the three and a half years prior of an administration that worked diligently to set back, dismiss, eliminate, and deny LGBTQ rights, protection, and equality. Let them know that we are counting on them to keep fighting the good fight for full equality for LGBTQ people all over the world, and we are confident that they will do so with even greater tools, history, examples, alliances, and spirit.

    Show them the importance of self-love as well as love for community, such that no matter their personal, professional, or occupational endeavors, there is probably at least one elder LGBTQ person within six degrees of their community who has worked to forge a bit of path in the same or similar occupation and is there to guide and support their journey if asked. If no one such person exists, let them know that there are multitudes of us who are cheering them on as trailblazers.

    We are everywhere. No one of us is ever alone, truly. Perhaps community seems more obvious now than ever, but it never hurts or grows old to remind ourselves of its importance. As many of our lavender graduates emerge from distance learning, sheltering in place, and lack of physical connection with community to eventually put their new well-earned degrees to work, perhaps now more than ever we need to show them the appreciation, respect, confidence, and love they deserve.  

    Congratulations, lavender class of 2021. We see you. In pride, always.

    Andrea Shorter is a longtime Commissioner for the City and County of San Francisco, now serving on the Juvenile Probation Commission after 21 years as a Commissioner on the Status of Women. She is a longtime advocate for gender and LGBTQ equity, voter rights, and criminal and juvenile justice reform. She is a co-founder of the Bayard Rustin LGBTQ Coalition, and was a David Bohnett LGBT Leaders Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

    Published on May 20, 2021