Thursday, May 26, 2011

More rainbow power

This is my latest column in the Claremont Courier. I think it speaks for itself.


“Lesson number one: Always check the weather forecast.”

This wasn’t an admonition to the planners of the outdoor graduation ceremonies at the Claremont colleges two weekends ago. Although I’m not sure if looking at the forecast would have helped, since, from what I saw, it didn’t indicate that there would be drizzle and even a few little showers on Sunday morning right before the start of the commencement exercises at Pomona and Scripps. No doubt there was some big-time panicking underway.

Nor was it exactly like when the late, great Kurt Vonnegut famously told a group of graduates to “wear sunblock.” I think this advice was somewhat less flippant and had more of an unique background story.

Jehan Agrama, a 1980 Pomona College alumna, was addressing a group of Claremont colleges graduating seniors, was talking about when she was a student at Pomona “before there was e-mail and cell phones.” As she explained, “When you wanted to make a call, you had to stop. And use a pay phone.”

She talked about how, at that time, she was very involved in a student group called Feminists Against Repression (FAR). They wore bright red t-shirts emblazoned with “Go FAR” in white. One night, they splashed red paint in a quad at C.M.C - then Claremont Men’s College - to protest some doings of a fraternity. However, it rained a bit later, and the feminists awoke in the morning to find their efforts all washed away.

Hence the importance of checking the weather forecast.

But there was something more unique about this address and Ms. Agrama giving it. Now the head of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance for Anti-Defamation (GLAAD) in the Los Angeles area, Ms. Agrama went on in her comments to explain that she later found herself coming out as a lesbian - something even less easy to do in a family with a Middle Eastern background.

This was a very important part, more or less the key part, of the address, which wasn’t given during commencement weekend. It took place several weeks before, and the assembled students, from all of the colleges here and all about to graduate, were all lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

The event, taking place on a Friday afternoon at the end of April in Balch Hall at Scripps College, was Lavender Graduation, Class of 2011, put on by the Queer Resource Center (QRC) of the Claremont Colleges.

I don’t know how long this ceremony has been going on. This was the first time I heard of it, and I’m glad I did and went. It was eye-opening and heartening.

This may have been a small gathering on a Friday afternoon, but it was obviously a highlight to the students who were there. The stage was decorated with balloons, and there were plenty of colorful dresses and bright shirts, jackets and accessories. There were also lots of cheering, whooping and joyful squealing.

The graduates were welcomed, warmly embraced, by Angie Moore of Pitzer College, who praised her peers for being “beautiful deviants” and for “daring to be who you are.” The same warmth radiated from Adriana di Bartolo, QRC Coordinator, as she went on to preside.

A particularly meaningful part of the ceremony was when each of the presidents of the colleges were recognized for their support of the QRC. Each of the presidents or their representative - David Oxtoby of Pomona was the only president who attended for this - got on stage to receive a plaque and some love and have their picture taken. A few professors who had given GLBT-related presentations during the year were also recognized.

It was very clear that those served by the QRC, located on the Pomona College campus, make up a real community. It was also evident that this community, as vital as it is, thrives with support from others.

I was reminded later of the importance of community at the colleges during another ceremony, the baccalaureate service on the Friday afternoon of commencement weekend this month. During her few minutes at the podium on the Garrison Theater stage, Abi Weber, a Pomona College graduating senior and one of eight graduating seniors to speak, told of getting weary of washing dishes after the hillel service and dinner every Friday evening in the tiny kitchen at McAlister Center as her friends headed off to parties and other fun activities. She was about to give up when a few other students joined her, and the dish-washing became a wonderful, rich time of sharing thoughts on religion, philosophy, books, movies and whatnot.

Two other things struck me about the Lavender Graduation, both having to do with names. One was that it was put on by an entity calling itself the Queer Resource Center - when the very use of the word “queer” is controversial in the GLBT community. Some claim and use it with pride; others see it, still, as a crude put-down. I suspect today’s younger-generation students are mostly among the former.

Arguably most moving and remarkable was that not only were these queer graduates named and presented, walking across the stage one by one, at the ceremony, they were listed, in black and white, for all to see, in the program. It wasn’t so long - less than 50 years - ago when people, in general, didn’t dare admit that they were homosexual and often went to considerable lengths to hide the fact. It was, after all, thought to be a sickness, if not a crime.

To paraphrase an old ad line: You’ve come a long way, fabulous babies, and will no doubt go much further!

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