LGBTQ+ graduates encouraged to live their ‘true colors’

Graduates and members of the University community at Monday's Lavender Celebration. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami
By Meredith Camel

Graduates and members of the University community at Monday's Lavender Celebration. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami

LGBTQ+ graduates encouraged to live their ‘true colors’

By Meredith Camel
Student and alumni speakers shared pearls of wisdom at the eighth annual Lavender Celebration on Monday evening, when achievements of graduates and award recipients who have enhanced the University’s commitment to inclusion were spotlighted.

Members of the University of Miami community gathered in the Shalala Student Center Ballroom Monday evening for the first in-person Lavender Celebration since 2019. 

The event, which has been taking place at universities nationwide since 1995 and at the University of Miami since 2015, honors the achievements of graduates who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Among those graduates is Joseph Recker, who will cross the University’s commencement stage next week with a bachelor’s degree in marine science and biology. As the Lavender Celebration undergraduate student speaker, Recker described his journey at the U since arriving four years ago from a small town in Illinois. 

“At the start of my freshman year, I wasn’t ‘out’ to my family or friends,” Recker said. “The University of Miami was one of the first places in my life that I saw LGBTQ+ people living their true and authentic lives.” 

Recker noted that coming out to his parents created a deep rift. But after several months of not speaking to their son, Recker’s parents turned to the LGBTQ+ Student Center, where they received guidance and reassurance. 

“For that, I am eternally grateful to the center and its staff,” Recker said. “Throughout my time here at UM, the LGBTQ+ Student Center has served as a beacon of safety, encouragement, and empowerment for myself and countless other students on campus.” 

Recker—who also received the Danny Gomez Legacy Award for his leadership as president of the University’s student organization oSTEM, a member of the board of directors for Safe Schools South Florida, and an assistant to the festival director for Miami Beach Pride—shared these parting words for his classmates: “Embrace the unexpected, live your true colors, it does get better, and go ’Canes.” 

Brittney Davis, who graduates with a Ph.D. in community psychology, received the Outstanding Graduate Student Award and delivered the graduate student address. She is a member of the GradOUT student organization, served as the University’s Miami Beach Pride 2021 co-chair, and is a recipient of the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship and the Aqua Foundation for Women scholarship. 

“Being a ’Cane has meant access to incredible institutional resources and incredibly special people,” said Davis. “The work we have been assigned as a community is weighty, and seeking and demanding freedom may not always feel freeing to us. But we must continue to make space in each of us to care for ourselves and to care for each other—as we have in this space.” 

The Outstanding Student Researcher Award went to Sergio Papa Ruark, whose research toward a master’s degree in anthropology focuses on two-spirit people and gender diversity in indigenous cultures. Landon Coles, outgoing Student Government president and a graduating political science major, received the Lavender Community Partner Award for his advocacy of LGBTQ+ student concerns throughout his presidency, including moderating the “Do Black Queer and Trans Lives Matter” panel and fostering conversations on key issues with University leadership. 

In his alumni address, Trae Williamson, who holds a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies and is president of the Williamson Cadillac-Buick-GMC car dealership, highlighted a quote by Walt Whitman that also appeared recently in an episode of the hit Apple TV series “Ted Lasso.”

The quote, “Be curious, not judgmental,” launched Williamson into a spirited plea for students to nurture the part of themselves that is driven by love, compassion, and creativity, not the part driven by fear. “Where you put your focus is what will determine your reality,” Williamson said. 

Lavender Celebration, which also included performances by the student a cappella group BisCaydence, concluded with each graduate joining Gisela Vega, director of the LGBTQ Student Center; Patricia Whitely, senior vice president for student affairs; and Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, on stage to receive a rainbow-colored cord they will wear proudly with their commencement regalia next week.