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Graduation event for A&M GLBT center draws backlash

Graduation event for A&M GLBT center draws backlash

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Texas A&M University's decision to host a graduation event for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender graduates has drawn the ire of a few conservative groups.

The Texas A&M University Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center has organized a "Lavender Graduation Celebration" for Wednesday evening.

The ceremony, started in 1995 at the University of Michigan and celebrated at dozens of colleges across the nation, is a special event to honor lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and ally students and to acknowledge their achievements, organizers said, adding that the event is open to all students and is not, contrary to the name, an official commencement ceremony.

The celebration, funded through student fees, will feature student and staff speakers and will be headlined by Phyllis Frye, the first transgender judge in Texas. Frye, who couldn't be reached for comment, is an A&M graduate who was a member of the Corps of Cadets.

The attendees also will receive rainbow-colored tassels, which are intended to be symbolic and are not to be worn at the May 9-10 graduation ceremonies, organizers said.

On April 1, the conservative news website Campus Reform posted a story about the celebration, which set off discussions on blogs, forums and social media. And the push back has not waned.

On Tuesday, the president of a conservative advocacy organization denounced the celebration.

"This special Texas A&M ceremony essentially promotes and celebrates dangerous and risky sexual activity that can seriously jeopardize a person's well-being," wrote Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, in a prepared statement. "I'm not sure this is the most responsible way for a university to prepare students for the real world."

The Campus Reform article didn't clarify that the "lavender graduation" is a celebration rather than a graduation, which has led to some of the confusion and backlash, organizers said.

A&M student Levi Bohanan, president of the LGBTQ Aggies said "it's about time" that A&M joins the dozens of other universities that host similar events.

"In regards to some of the controversy, a lot of it has been fueled by misconceptions, which might be deliberate, I don't know," Bohanan said. "It's not the first time the LGBT community at Texas A&M has dealt with controversy so I think we'll be OK."

Bohanan said he has fielded questions from people concerned about the event but that the concern stems from misunderstandings and that the majority of Aggies are supportive. He said the negative feedback has distracted somewhat from the event but that plenty of Aggies, including himself, are looking forward to it.

"The fact we have to sit down with people and express that is a little disconcerting," Bohanan said. "We're all Aggies and we should all want to celebrate one another's achievements and what we've contributed during our time here at Aggieland."

The GLBT Resource Center has fielded some concerns as well. The event was brought to Aggieland under the direction of Sidney Gardner, who took over as the center's program coordinator about two years ago.

"Looking at the title, I can understand why people would think automatically it was another commencement ceremony, but since it's something that's been happening since the '90s at other institutions, I didn't foresee it being something people would automatically assume was a separate commencement," Gardner said.

She estimates the cost for the event to run under $1,000 and to primarily go toward renting space and purchasing food. The center's event, similar to the other A&M graduation ceremonies, is paid for through mandatory student fees.

Some students do not want their money to help pay for it.

"Texas A&M should not be using mandatory student fees to support a GLBT Resource Center, which is used to push a one-sided sexual worldview," A&M student senator Chris Woolsey told Campus Reform. "This Lavender Graduation is one such example of Texas A&M using student money for political activism."

Gardner maintains that the ceremony is a benefit to the students and the university.

"We're really excited to offer a space to be able to celebrate our students in a way they can celebrate their whole selves and who they are. Many times that piece is lost in some of the more traditional commencements because students may not be able to be out to their family and friends. This is a nice way to be able to honor all of our students' identities and the way they've contributed to the campus and community."

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