Lavender Graduation

Last night, I was honored to give the brief keynote at IUPUI’s “Lavender” Graduation–a celebration of LGBT students who have earned diplomas and advanced degrees, and are graduating this May. This is what I told them.


Graduations are wonderful times—I know that each of you is breathing a sigh of relief that you finally got through it all. You are savoring the thought of no more papers, no more juggling classes with work and family, no more putting up with picky professors…So I do want to encourage you to enjoy this moment. Have a drink—or three. Congratulate yourselves. You deserve it.

Then tomorrow, I expect you all to get up and begin a different “assignment”—one that will probably last for the rest of your life. Starting tomorrow, I want each and every one of you to be an activist for social justice.

Before you roll your eyes, let me describe what I mean by social justice, and what being an “activist” requires. I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t mean taking up arms in a revolution, or taking to the streets in protest—although you might end up doing those things, they certainly aren’t required by my definition.

So—first things first. Why should you care about some expansive concept called “social justice”? Why not limit your activism—assuming you bother to engage in it at all—to those causes that focus upon advancing rights for LGBT folks—to the causes that will benefit you most directly?

I’ll tell you why.

We live in a society with a lot of other people, many of whom have political opinions, backgrounds, holy books, and perspectives that differ significantly from our own. The only way such a society can work–the only “social contract” that allows diverse Americans to coexist in reasonable harmony–is within a legal system and culture that respect those differences to the greatest extent possible. That means laws that require treating everyone equally within the public/civic sphere, while respecting the right of individuals to embrace different values and pursue different ends in their private lives.

I know it’s hard for the Micah Clarks and Ted Cruz’s of this world to understand, but when the government refuses to make everyone live by their particular interpretation of their particular holy book, that’s not an attack on them. It’s not a War on Christianity. It is recognition that we live in a diverse society where other people have as extensive a right to respect and moral autonomy as the right they claim for themselves.

Ironically, a legal system that refuses to take sides in America’s ongoing religious wars is the only system that can really safeguard anyone’s religious liberty. Genuine equality is only possible in a “live and let live” system—in an open and tolerant society.

It is recognition of that fact that has brought many different kinds of Americans into many different civil rights battles: I’m Jewish and a woman, but in my own lifetime, I haven’t limited my participation to efforts to combat sexism and anti-Semitism. I’ve worked for racial justice, for LGBT rights, against efforts to marginalize immigrants—not because I’m some sort of noble person, but because I’m not. I’m actually very selfish, and I understand that my own rights absolutely depend upon equal rights for other people.

If everyone doesn’t have rights, they aren’t rights—they’re privileges that government can bestow or withdraw. In such a society, no one’s rights are safe.

So that’s the WHY. What about the HOW?

I said you don’t have to take to the streets to be an activist. What do you have to do? Let me just share a few examples of effective activism:

I wrote a regular column for the Indiana Word for some 25 years. In one of those columns, written just 16 years ago, I shared the story of a wedding attended by my youngest son. It was a lovely affair—formal, at an expensive Chicago hotel, conducted with meticulous attention to detail. The program book included a message from the bride and groom, reciting how enthusiastic they were to enter into wedded life, how sure they were that matrimony was the right choice for them. In fact, they said, there was only one hesitation, one fact that gave rise to a certain reluctance to marry: the fact that others were legally prevented from doing likewise. It seemed unfair that legal marriage was available to them, a man and a woman, and not available to others merely because they were of the same gender. The message concluded with a request that those present, who had shared the happy day with this particular couple, work toward a time “when everyone can enter into the institution of marriage and have their union recognized by society and the state.”

In that column, I speculated about what would happen to the pervasive bigotry against gays and lesbians if hundreds, then thousands, of heterosexuals added similar paragraphs to their wedding programs. I said it might change the world.

As we now know, actions like those and many others did “change the world.” Probably the most significant activism—the most consequential–was the courage of thousands of LGBT people who refused to live dishonestly and who “came out”–often with the support of their families and allies, but sometimes in the face of enormous hostility. Coming out was activism, and it was enormously effective.

Last year, marriage equality became the law of the land, and survey research tells us that solid majorities of Americans now endorse same-sex marriage and support the extension of full civil rights protections to the gay community.

Of course, we live in Indiana, where gays do not yet have civil rights protections. This state has a long way to go before LGBT folks achieve full civic equality . So look around, and you’ll see plenty of examples of social activism and plenty of opportunities to get involved.

Remember, in the wake of the passage of RFRA, the allies who started an organization and sold those now ubiquitous stickers that say “This business serves everyone”? What a great message. Putting that sticker on the door of your establishment –or encouraging a friend or neighbor to do so—is activism.

And what about the “Pence must go” signs you see everywhere? (I have one in my front yard—and so do three of my neighbors.) That doesn’t take much effort, but it’s activism that communicates to passersby that “here’s an Indiana citizen who doesn’t endorse bigotry.”

Speaking of time, the women involved in Periods for Pence are taking time to call the Governor’s office to remind him that he lacks the moral and constitutional authority to make women’s reproductive choices for them.

The bottom line is that activism can be expressed in many different ways. As we gather here, there are LGBT Republicans working to change the GOP state platform; there are lobbyists for Indiana Equality and Freedom Indiana and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce urging lawmakers to add four words and a comma to the state civil rights law, there are opinionated professors like me writing snarky blogs and columns…

Here’s the “take away.” A better world is a world where different people with different beliefs, living different kinds of lives, can co-exist without privileging some at the expense of others. That world won’t appear by accident. We all have to do our part to bring it into existence. We all have to be activists.

So celebrate tonight, and tomorrow, take your credentials and your accomplishments out into the world and use them to make that world a kinder, gentler, just-er place.

We old folks will be watching! And I personally will be cheering you on!


  1. As always, Sheila, your message is from your heart; your words are important to all, not only LGBTs but their supporters and especially their detractors…who will immediately turn to their Bibles to scramble for chapter and verse to quote.

    I watch my gay and lesbian friends face the daily problems plaguing all of us with the added burden of discrimination against their love and laws that tout religion as their basis.

    I recently posted late comments to your blog, “A Wedding” but received no response. In my comments I asked a question regarding the “Lavender Scare” from the 1950’s when Joe McCarthy added that bigotry to his “Red Menace” investigation and Senate hearings which destroyed many lives. Why is that not a well known part of our history; it also destroyed many lives? McCarthy’s homophobia resulted in President Dwight D. Eisenhower (and who was a more popular president?) signed Executive Order 10450 into law on April 27, 1953. Broadly worded, “Any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, or sexual perversion” was prohibited from employment with the government. Over the next few months, approximately 5,000 homosexuals were fired from federal jobs, including private contractors and military personnel. Apparently all other illegal actions in the law were ignored as they concentrated all efforts on what they call “sexual perversion”. McCarthy stayed in the background on this issue but his chief Counsel in the “Red Menace” hearings was Roy Cohn, a known homosexual who died of AIDS and, together with the “enthusiastic support” of J. Edgar Hoover, a widely suspected homosexual, “vigorously prosecuted any and all accused homosexuals who came before them. So, it was a “pick and choose”; they apparently had their personally chosen homosexuals to promote their cause. My question was, has that law ever been repealed?

    While I support Sheila’s words and their importance; I also grieve and question the need for a “Lavender Graduation” anywhere in this country? “America, the land of the free and the home of the brave”? LGBTs are not free but they certainly are brave today and I stand with them.

    Thank you Sheila for your strong stand and your beautifully worded speech at the “Lavender Graduation” at IUPUI.

  2. I only hope they take up your challenge and follow your example by holding to the “civil” part of civil discourse.

  3. I have two comments, the first to Sheila for her wonderful article. If only, if only, there had been many people acting as activists for social justice in Germany in the 1930s, we might have not had World War II.

    And secondly, I take gentle issue with JoAnn’s statement “While I support Sheila’s words and their importance; I also grieve and question the need for a “Lavender Graduation” anywhere in this country?” This statement misses an important point. Have any of you ever said, “I don’t see race.” Here is BLM leader and activist Alicia Garza from a recent New York Times Magazine article on Black Lives Matter.

    She [Alicia Garza] also dismisses the kind of liberalism that finds honor in nonchalance. “We want to make sure that people are not saying, ‘Well, whatever you are, I don’t care,’ ” she said. “No, I want you to care. I want you to see all of me.”

    This also applies to many transgender, gay and lesbian people. There are LGBT people who want to go mainstream and have their LGBTness be forgotten. But there are many more whose identity has been formed by their experiences of prejudice and activism, not to mention many other aspects of the LGBT community. And this is reflected in the comments of a Bishop in the Methodist church, way back in 1996, speaking to Unitarian Universalist Leaders and Clergy at their General Assembly, who said, after speaking of his conversion to support the LGBT community by his son coming out as gay, “Please don’t tell my parishioners, but LGBT people are a lot more fun than heterosexuals.”

    This is because, having broken social taboos as major as sexual orientation, and even more so, gender identity, they realize that many of our social taboos are at best silly and at worst very harmful.

  4. If only I could write like you Sheila.

    In a post here not long ago I posited that the world that we’re striving for is one based on empathy. It would come about someday in my opinion because empathy is a natural human emotion with which we’re all born, but that’s when the assault on it also begins. We’re taught to hate, to feel superior to, to fear others of our species.

    Undoing that mess we create every generation will happen one person at a time and it will happen because those who have survived childhood with sufficient empathy intact will teach a few others why it’s an essential natural condition.

    In other words it’s a matter of cultural evolution and like biological evolution it is the superior adaptation to the environment and therefore it will displace our adaptation to previous environments.

    For most of our history the law of the jungle was the superior adaptation. We could hit each other with sticks and stones to establish physical prowess and the strongest got to mate more. Whoppee.

    Of course harnessing energy created bigger sticks and heavier stones and that created more whoppee and now there are 7B+ of us teetering on the brink of having to start the journey all over again.

    We changed our environment which will now change us – because life physically and culturally evolves.

    Social justice activism is like the dude who thought first that pointy sticks work better than clubs.

    It’s necessary.

  5. While the following metaphor may have some problems, human rights is like two people in a jacuzzi. When the temperature is toasty for me, it’s toasty for you. I cannot make it toasty for me and cool for you. If it’s uncomfortable for you, if it’s not immediately uncomfortable for me, I will understand that very soon. There is no jacuzzi where the temperatures are different for different people, and so with human rights. The more rights I have, the more rights you have. I like that idea. It’s so simple and logical, but some people think the jacuzzi is all about them when that’s impossible.

  6. Thanks for the article, Bill. When people make decisions because “they’re mad”, if they don’t think it through, it leads to some serious regret, “buyer’s remorse”. Because Republican voters were angry and decided to use the primary ballot box to express it, they are now confronted with a choice: a narcissistic bully or a lizard in a suit, both of who offer an alternate fascist reality with promises to “fix it”. This can certainly make an alternate reality, but as Sheila has pointed out, when I deprive you of rights, I will likely lose mine, too. The ones who talk most loudly about “my rights” are most likely to lose them in the long run. What happens when the bad guy that you wanted them to control is you?

  7. Great reference Bill.

    Things are collapsing around us. For almost everybody. That’s what happens to unsustainable things. Any things and always.

    Our job now is the rebuilding not of what collapsed but what’s sustainable.

    Now that we know what “ain’t” that we stand a better chance of building what is that.

    Let the past go and build the future. That’s what this post by Sheila is all about.

  8. Donald is a characiture of the past. We can’t afford the past. It’s time to instead turn to freedom, democracy, empathy.

  9. How about a future where those who do risky behaviors carry their own health care insurance instead of passing the costs of their diseases onto the community? Would that not be more just? Shari Rudavsky of duh Star noted that Syphilis cases were up over 50% in 2015 with most of the cases being MSM (that is, their deficient sex education led them to confuse the anus with a sex organ). Since we have a class of pretty much known high risk people why not exclude them from the common risk pools and enable them to pay for their own mistakes? Wouldn’t that be more just? Did the Law School never learn that AIDS seems to have a relationship with HIV ?

  10. Leon: Once you start that argument, where does it stop? Sugar, alcohol , tobacco, high fat, sedentary life habits, no exercise, genetic predisposition to cancer, etc. Would you like to see the insurance pool completely disappear? Did you ever smoke a cigarette?

  11. Beautiful, Sheila. More folks in all corners of society should have a chance to read and really absorb your words about this and the other topics you bring to our attention.

  12. We have two paths. One is to make all humans alike and the other is to accept that they’re different.

    I’m a realist. Nobody changes because I wish they would.

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