Jessica Osborn, Sammi Daugherty, Gisela Vega and Torrey Crosby at the Lavender Celebration

Celebrating graduating students with pride

By Maya Bell

Celebrating graduating students with pride

By Maya Bell
The fifth annual Lavender Celebration recognizes the accomplishments of graduating LGBTQ+ students and the safe and inclusive spaces they helped create.

When Candelario Saldana was 15, his mother kicked him out of their home because he was gay, but on Tuesday night she sat proudly in the audience as her son was honored with the 2019 Lavender Celebration’s Graduate Student Award for improving the climate for LGBTQ+ students on campus.

“One of her biggest worries was that I’d have to give up my dreams, that life would be too hard for me and I couldn’t succeed as a gay and a Latino man,” said Saldana, the past president of OUTLaw who graduates from the University of Miami School of Law on Saturday.

More than 100 people gathered at the Shalala Student Center to recognize the many accomplishments of 22 of the University of Miami’s graduating LGBTQ+ students, who received the rainbow-colored regalia cord they’ll wear when they walk the commencement stage over the next three days.

But the evening was also a celebration of how far the University has come not only in the five years since it introduced its own Lavender Celebration, but in the nearly quarter-century since the University of Michigan held the first one in 1995 with just three attendees. Today, more than 100 colleges honor the accomplishments of their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and ally students with Lavender Celebrations.

“We were a little bit behind the times, but we’ve come a long way,” said Patricia A. Whitely, vice president for student affairs, who thanked the graduating students for helping build safer and more inclusive spaces at the University, and contributing to the success of its LGBTQ Student Center, which opened in 2016. As Whitely noted, when the first gay organization started on campus in 1991, members had to call a secret number to learn where the weekly meeting would be held—for their protection.

Marking her fourth month at the University, Gisela Vega, the new director of the student center, took a few minutes to recognize three graduating center staffers—Torrey Crosby, Sammi Daugherty, and Jessica Osborn—who eased her transition and have made a difference for countless students.

“It’s sad to see them move on, but it’s part of the life cycle,” Vega said.

Making a difference was the theme of alumna Cindy Brown’s address. Brown, the senior program manager for Lambda Living, which connects LGBTQ elders in the community to housing and other services, urged students “to get in the game,’’ not to watch from the sidelines.

“Today it’s a whole new world,” the 1986 graduate said. “Make a difference for someone. Be selfless. Get out in the world.”

Saldana, who is headed to the Wall Street law firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft in Charlotte, N.C., and the evening’s other student awardees had long ago embraced that mantra as their own. A so-called dreamer who for years lived in immigration limbo, Saldana spearheaded the creation of a fund to enable students interested in LGBTQ+ advocacy and was instrumental in designating a gender-inclusive restroom at the law school.

Selected as the senior speaker, Mary K. Balise also received the Danny Gomez Legacy Award for her many accomplishments, among them serving as president of SpectrUM, the largest LGBTQ+ organization on campus; establishing a UM chapter of oSTEM—the national organization for students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; and doubling the attendance and tripling the fundraising from DragOut, the annual on-campus drag show. She’s headed to the University of Central Florida to pursue a master’s in educational leadership.

A psychology major, Kyle Hafkey received the first Academic Excellence Award for his prolific research, including three HIV-related studies. He also co-authored a published academic journal article about the use of AIDS prevention medication among young gay and bisexual men in Miami and presented the research at three academic conferences. He plans to go to law school after graduation.