When Nieves Winslow first came to UCLA, finding community was a priority, so they signed up to live on UCLA Housing’s gender, sexuality and society–themed floor that celebrates queer culture.

Now Winslow, who uses they/them pronouns, is looking forward to graduation this week. They’ve gone from newbie to executive director of the Queer Alliance and one of the leaders of the campus’s queer community. Winslow will give the community a proper send-off as the student speaker at UCLA’s virtual Lavender Graduation ceremony on June 12.

“Lavender Graduation is a great opportunity to see other queer and trans adults succeeding and happy,” Winslow said.

The ceremony, which celebrates the achievements and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students, first came to UCLA in 1998, just three years after it was created by Ronni Sanlo at the University of Michigan. When she became the director of what is now UCLA’s LGBTQ Campus Resource Center, Lavender Graduation flourished and spread.

“We need to celebrate people who face real struggle,” Sanlo said. “I wanted the very last thing these students did in college to be positive and to let them know that they and their accomplishments were valued.”

After three successful, well-supported Lavender Graduations at UCLA, complete with prominent guest speakers, rainbow-frosted cakes, and rainbow graduation stoles and tassels, Sanlo touted the idea in the main professional journal for student affairs in 2000. By 2001, 45 colleges and universities had Lavender Graduations. That number now exceeds 330, according to a survey by Sanlo this spring.

“I couldn’t do the work on every campus, but I could share the information, and I had tremendous encouragement from the UCLA administration,” Sanlo said. “I’ve had students who brought their parents to Lavender Graduation, and that was the first time they came out to their parents, in this environment where students are celebrated and honored for all aspects of who they are.”

Although being limited to a virtual ceremony last year and this year is bittersweet, it also offers a different kind of accessibility, said the center’s current director, Andy Cofino.

“For students who are not out, or who have a hostile home environment, attending without visibly walking into the ceremony gives some people more access,” Cofino said. More than 60 graduates are expected to attend this year. “For students whose parents are supportive, it’s a beautiful show of support, and Zoom made it easier for more people to come. We had more people participate virtually in 2020 than we had in person the year before.”

The center also emphasizes intersectionality, Cofino notes. An advocacy committee launched last year through the center raises important LGBTQ issues to campus administration, specifically focused on students of color and supporting students during the pandemic. The center joined other organizations on campus, such as Transgender UCLA Pride, to add preferred names to BruinCards in 2017, remove the cards’ requirement for legal names in 2019 and increase the number of gender-inclusive bathrooms on campus in 2020. Weekly affinity groups include the QTBIPOC Affinity Space for Queer and Trans Black, Indigenous and People of Color, and a peer assessment of the QTBIPOC student experience (PDF) continues to inform changes at the center and at UCLA.

Spaces for queer, trans, Black, Indigenous and people of color are crucial, Winslow said, in part because so many LGBTQ organizations initially started as cis white gay and lesbian communities.

“To feel like you were left behind and not considered, even while people are saying you should be happy with what you have, is really disappointing, so to see these pushes toward intersectionality just feels really affirming,” said Winslow, an art major focusing on how individual narratives become community narratives. “I am queer nonbinary. I’m also Mexican. In my work, I do consider other folks, especially folks like me who don’t have specific spaces.”

Mimi Hoang — an alumna who co-founded UCLA’s first bisexual student group, Fluid at UCLA, in 1999 — will join Winslow on the virtual stage at Lavender Graduation as the alumni speaker. Hoang, a psychologist, educator, and activist specializing in LGBTQ and Asian Pacific Islander communities, plans to discuss her own coming-out story as a bisexual Asian American woman and a refugee from Vietnam.

“I wasn’t able to attend my own Lavender Graduation because I wasn’t out to my parents at the time, so being chosen as the keynote speaker 22 years later is a monumental homecoming for me,” Hoang said. “Lavender Graduation is a space where people can truly be themselves, which is especially important given that LGBTQ people are at higher risk of mental health issues and suicidality due to minority stress and the effects of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.”

A report by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found that LGBQ youth are beginning to come out two to four years younger than previous generations, but they still experience as much or more discrimination and psychological distress as their predecessors, with higher rates of suicide attempts.

That makes building community all the more important, said Jade Elyssa Rivera, board co-chair of UCLA’s LGBTQ alumni group, the Lambda Alumni Association. UCLA makes community possible even before LGBTQ students’ first day of class with the country’s only Pride Admit Weekend. The event, founded and led by UCLA students with support from the LGBTQ Center in 2014, welcomes newly admitted students even before they commit to a school. For some, it’s the deciding factor. Rivera, who uses they/we pronouns, was the founding co-director of Transfer Pride Admit Weekend in 2019. They worked with others to design an event that would reach students who may have only two years at UCLA to connect.

“We wanted to make a program that addresses the common experience of isolation and loneliness as an LGBTQ+ transfer student, because they’d have a community that understood their experiences even before coming to campus,” Rivera said.

For graduate Olivia Shearin, winner of the center’s inaugural Palazzolo Memorial Award for leadership and public service, this won’t be her first Lavender Graduation, but it will be the first one she isn’t staffing. She’s seen how the event unites different groups of the same community.

“It brings people together to highlight queer community activism and leadership, and you see that these are the people shaping queer activism in our country,” Shearin said.

As internal vice president of UCLA’s Lavender Health Alliance and a member of the student advisory board for the UCLA Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Shearin is already making changes. Her own struggles with navigating campus inspired her to educate groups on how to make their events more accessible. Cringe-worthy moments of inaccuracy in science classes led her to create a guide on trans-friendly, gender-neutral language (PDF), such as remembering that XX and XY are not the only chromosomal arrangements. With EDI, she has participated in everything from implementing a land acknowledgement to the Tongva people to addressing racial bias in policing on campus.

As the latest crop of Lavender graduates accept their diplomas on June 12, it’s not hard to be inspired by their activism. They may miss out on the rainbow-frosted cake this year, but it’s clear they’ll celebrate with pride, even virtually.