The Charger Blog

University Celebrates Graduating Members of LGBTQ+ Community

As part of its second annual Lavender Ceremony, members of the University community celebrated the accomplishments of graduating members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies, recognizing those who have gone above and beyond to serve as a source of support for their fellow Chargers.

May 23, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

The Lavender Ceremony
The Lavender Ceremony honors graduating members of the LGBTQ+ community.

During her time as a Charger, Rebecca Chan-Chao '22 has been dedicated to serving as a beacon of encouragement to her fellow Chargers. She was recently recognized for her dedication – in particular – to supporting members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Chan-Chao, a forensic science major, attended the University's Lavender Ceremony, which honors graduating members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies and acknowledges their achievements and contributions to the University community. As part of the ceremony, she was presented the Ally of the Year Award.

"I'm so honored to receive this award," she said. "I'm honored to know I was the best friend I could be to members of the LGBTQ+ community. I hope to continue to be the best ally, the best friend."

Rebecca Chan-Chao '22 accepted the Ally of the Year Award.
Rebecca Chan-Chao '22 accepted the Ally of the Year Award.
'It was okay to be myself'

An annual ceremony conducted on myriad college and university campuses, the Lavender Graduation was started at the University of Michigan in 1995.

As part of the University's second annual Lavender Ceremony, dozens of students were recognized, receiving lavender cords to wear at Commencement. Several students, such as Chan-Chao, were also recognized as part of an inaugural awards ceremony.

Students were presented with the Unsung Hero Award and the Activist of the Year Award, recognizing their consistent efforts to engage their peers and serve as a resource for their classmates as well as their dedication to fighting for advancement of LGBTQ+ rights, respectively.

Summer Orlando, a theater drag queen and illusionist, served as the event's "hostest with the mostest." Decked out in lavender, Orlando opened and concluded the event with musical performances. She also shared her own story of growing up in a very conservative and religious family. She compared her upbringing to Dorothy Gale's experience in Kansas in the popular movie "The Wizard of Oz." Like Gale, Orlando says she was living in a world without color.

Now a full-time performer, Orlando travels the country to share her story, perform, and offer advice and inspiration.

"I was not taught about the queer community when I was growing up," she said. "I was not able to express myself. I later learned about it when I was in college, and I learned it was okay to be myself."

Summer Orlando performs.
Summer Orlando performs as part of the University's Lavender Ceremony.
'Write your own personal best seller'

Jillian Celentano, an author and advocate, delivered the keynote address. Celentano told graduates that, in the six years since she began her transition, she has learned that members of the LGBTQ+ community are remarkably resilient. She now identifies as a transgender woman, saying she began her own transition when she was 55 years old.

Sharing her own story, Celentano told Chargers that from about the age of five, she knew she was different. Assigned male at birth, she said she found it easier to spend time with and relate to girls. But, she explained, when she brought this up to her parents, they told her she was a boy, and she felt ashamed. Celentano grew up who she was told she was supposed to be – and experienced anxiety and depression.

It wasn't until she told her therapist she was transgender that she began to find she wasn't alone. She then went back to school, became a public speaker, advocate, and author.

Jillian Celentano
Author Jillian Celentano delivers the keynote address.

"I have lived more life in the past six years than I had in the previous 55 years," said Celentano, who recently earned her MSW from Southern Connecticut State University. "I want to inspire everyone to be themselves, no matter their age. We may never know the influence we have on other people's lives, and that's why it is so important to be kind.

"Please learn to love and accept the amazing person you are," she continued. "When you love yourself, you are the richest person on earth. Love and be proud of who you are. It's your story, now go out and write your own personal best seller."

'Amazing things are going to happen'

The second part of the awards ceremony included the presentation of the inaugural Mike Lawlor Icon Award, named in honor of Mike Lawlor, J.D., an associate professor of criminal justice. A former member of the Connecticut House of Representatives and former Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy's undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning in the Office of Policy and Management, Dr. Lawlor has been a dedicated advocate for LGBTQ+ rights.

Dr. Lawlor led the push for legislation that made Connecticut the second state in the country to pass legislation allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. He has been described as the University's "icon for visibility and advocacy."

Mike Lawlor, J.D.
Mike Lawlor, J.D., speaks to members of the Class of 2022.

"Your personal stories change the world, but you need to find the courage to tell them," he told graduates at the ceremony. "We are in for some difficult days ahead, but you can save the world – every one of you. You have a special passion related to our identity, and it is up to you to go and make a difference. Each of you can do this."

'Dream big'

Dr. Lawlor presented the inaugural award named in his honor to Lilyan Lauzon '22. The award recognized Lauzon's advocacy and dedication to serving her community.

"I love seeing all the work we've accomplished in my four years at the University," said Lauzon, a forensic science major. "I look forward to seeing what we will accomplish. Keep being you."

Summer Orlando concluded the ceremony with a song.
Summer Orlando concluded the ceremony with a song.

The ceremony ended with a final performance by Orlando and a compilation video of congratulatory messages from faculty, staff, and alumni for members of the Class of 2022.

"Dream big," said Orlando. "You never know what's going to happen. If you are true to yourself, you will see that amazing things are going to happen."