I can sometimes forget how difficult college was, even if it was only a few years ago.
The difficulty does not lie in homework, grades, all-nighters and those finals that may be take-home but take 20 hours to finish instead of a short two hours. Academic achievement only goes so far, and five years out of college, no one is really going to care if you could master the fine art of identifying a certain tree in Earth science unless your career choice depends on it. One of the things that no one warns you about is the growing pains in college, socially and sexually.
My lady-friend, who identifies as a transgender woman, is graduating from university next week.
Not that it needs to be pointed out, but I am pretty impressed with my girlfriend and happy that she made it through university. Her major, mathematics, is way more involved than my business management degree was. Just the degree in mathematics alone is enough for me to cheer her on. A few months ago we were discussing whether she wanted to go to the ceremony. She is dead-set on not attending, and I am not going to try to persuade her that she needs to do this, because the ceremony is purely for academics; her achievements span far beyond the academic field, and what she really has had to face head-on cannot be represented by a diploma.
Compared with heterosexual and cisgender (a word that describes individuals whose gender identity corresponds with their birth-assigned sex) college students, those on the LGBTQ spectrum have a higher suicide rate. They also face worse difficulties outside the realm of academics in college. I have a painful number of friends in the community whose parents have disowned them and kicked them out, or who deny their own sexual feelings to please their parents, and who face discrimination inside and outside the classroom. Comparatively, despite not being accepted by many of my peers in the LGBT community in college, I have always lucked out in having an understanding mother.
Listening to my lady-friend struggle to explain how her college graduation is not the biggest milestone, two realizations washed over me: She and I are not alone in believing that the journey is not the academics but the self-discovery, and that every college and university needs to recognize "lavender graduation."
"Lavender graduation," also known as "rainbow graduation," first occurred at the University of Michigan in 1995 and honors the hardships, achievements, struggles and hopes and dreams of graduates and allies from the gay community. At some universities and colleges some participants are even allowed to wear their sash to the main graduation ceremony.
When you enter college, there really is no road map for dealing with your sexuality. I vaguely remember my freshman orientation weekend, where I remember meeting one or two people whom I would consider good old friends if I saw them across the room at a college reunion, but other than that, there were no instructions on how to behave, how to start friendships or how to come out to roommates, which is possibly why I was defenseless when my first college roommate had me removed so that her homophobic stance wouldn't have to change.
The one presentation from freshman orientation that stands out in my mind was during the last day, when one presenter discussed how to stay safe and navigate college -- in the heterosexual sense: how to stay unique, how to make sure that you pass your classes while crossing new frontiers and how to get along with people whom you might not always like. But discussing how to express your sexuality, what to do when you are the odd person out in the gay-straight alliance, introducing more than one partner to your college roommates and starting conversations with friends that didn't end in accusations about fake affairs? Believe me, that wasn't included.
I could write a book about that and be one of the few experts in that field, not because I am an expert in that field but because few colleges recognize those struggles among this minority group.
For me, the words that I would say to my lady-friend who is very close to graduating next week are simple:
My darling, my chocolate cupcake with rainbow sprinkles, I am so glad that you have managed to make it out of university stronger than when you entered. I am glad that you not only achieved in your academic pursuits but never let the turkeys get you down. I realize that the world seems really big and kind of scary, and that the "real world" is waiting for you right after you finish your last final this Friday, but please remember: Your strength in making it through four years of college impresses me. I love you.