Lavender Graduation: Celebrating The Spring Class of 2023

Members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies gathered to celebrate Kent State’s LGBTQ+ graduates

This year’s Lavender Graduation (LavGrad) is Kent State University’s 11th annual celebration of its LGBTQ+ graduates. At the university’s first Lavender Graduation in 2013, just three graduates were celebrated, with about 25 guests in attendance.

“The Lavender Graduation ceremony has grown considerably since then," said Ken Ditlevson, director of Kent State’s LGBTQ+ Center. "This year, we are celebrating more than 70 graduates, with an audience of around 350 people, including students’ biological families, as well as found family members.”

The event includes dinner, awards and celebration of the semester’s graduates. “It’s a fun night that has become an annual tradition that our students, faculty and staff look forward to,” he said.

Ken Ditlevson LavGrad 2023

Kent State LGBTQ+ Center Director Ken Ditlevson

“The event is an incredible uplifting ceremony where students can be their authentic selves, in celebrating the accomplishment in reaching graduation,” said Ditlevson. “LGBTQ+ students oftentimes face multiple challenges in reaching graduation, including family/friend rejection and/or lack of financial support with college expenses after coming out.”

Three keynote speakers

Soon-to-be Kent State graduates in the Spring Class of 2023 Lana Kuhlenschmidt and Natalia Cruz were the event's student keynote speakers. Michael Varrati was the alumni keynote speaker.

Michael Varrati LavGrad 2023

Kent State Alumnus Michael Varrati

Varrati is an alumnus, M.A. ’07, who also completed an undergraduate degree at Kent State. He is a filmmaker, screenwriter, producer and host. He is known for his multi-genre work in film and television for networks including Netflix, Lifetime, The Disney Channel, Hallmark, France’s M6 and others.

Other event speakers and presenters included Ditlevson; Kent State University President Todd Diacon, Ph.D.; Lamar Hylton, Ph.D., senior vice president, Division of Student Affairs; Assistant Professor Caitlin Cane, Ph.D.; Jen Kulics, assistant vice president, Philanthropy; Assistant Professor Laura Vachon; and Yvonna Washington-Greer, Ph.D., assistant vice president, Equity, Identity and Success.

Lamar Hylton LavGrad 2023

Lamar Hylton, senior vice president, Division of Student Affairs

Honoring outstanding alumni

During the awards section of the ceremony, members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community were honored and recognized for their achievements. The 2023 Alumni Award was presented first, to David Bender, Ph.D., an outstanding donor to the LGBTQ+ Center.

TJ Horwood and Dr. Bender, LavGrad 2023

T.J. Horwood (left) and David Bender

Award presenter, Kent State alumnus T.J. Horwood described Bender as “a loyal donor and LGBTQ+ Center supporter." Horwood continued, "Their donations have started a fund to pay student wages and provided matching funds for Giving Tuesday to maximize needed funds. In fact, fresh off the press, last night, Dr. Bender began the process of endowing a fund to support the center’s internship program, as a planned gift!”

After Bender accepted his award, the 2022 Alumni Award was presented to Bill Hoover, who was unable to attend last year’s ceremony. His nomination for the award, recognizing Hoover as one of the founders of the Kent Gay Liberation Front (KGLF), came from a fellow student from 1968. It read, in part, “Bill Hoover and Dr. Dolores Noll were the voice and face of the (LGBTQ+) movement. Bill was in charge of working alongside other students to lead them to feel more comfortable as to what it meant to be gay, and the importance of ‘coming out of the closet.’ This was a radical thought for those times. Bill was on the front lines daily. He was a role model for us and was respected for his knowledge and understanding of the LGBTQ+ movement in Kent as well as around the world. Bill was, and is, a true pioneer, educator and leader. He is a man of dignity and respect to hundreds, if not thousands, of students at Kent State. He deserves to hold a place in Kent State’s history."

Bill Hoover, LavGrad 2023

One of the founders of the Kent Gay Liberation Front (KGLF), Bill Hoover

The names of all alumni award recipients are to be engraved on a plaque that will be displayed inside the LGBTQ+ Center as a lasting reminder of their contributions.

Recognizing exceptional individuals and organizations

This year’s Rising Star Award was presented to Rachel Kleinhenz, a first-year student in their first semester interning at the LGBTQ+ Center. This award is presented to a first-year student who has made tremendous effort to bring visibility, support and leadership to the LGBTQ+ community at Kent State. Kleinhenz’s nomination noted her bravery, particularly as a first-year student, in dealing with incidents of transphobia and working with university administration and for being an integral part of the Quest mentorship program, both as a participant and an intern.

The Out and Proud Student Leader Award honors an LGBGQ+-identified student who exemplifies student leadership. Recent Kent State graduate Breanna Cole received this award for their “unflagging support and dedication to the LGBTQ+ community and for reinstating, growing and leading KSUA Allies at Kent State at Ashtabula."

The Kent State Faculty/Staff Award is presented to a Kent State employee who has worked to create a better campus environment for LGBTQ+-identified people. Mahli Mechenbier, a senior lecturer in the Department of English at Kent State at Geauga, received this year’s award for their work with the LGBTQ+ Center Action Team (LSAC), the Rainbow Run, Lavender Graduation and other events as well as for being “a loud and proud supporter” and “loving, inspirational and immensely supportive.”  

The Bridge Builder Award went to The Wick Poetry Center as an ally or organization who has worked collectively with LGBTQ+ organizations on campus to create a better place for LGBTQ+-identified people. The nomination recognized the center’s intentional outreach as an organization that “truly cares about Kent’s students and their voice and that has created spaces of uplift and support marginalized voices.”

The Community Impact Award is given to a community member or organization who has worked to create a better environment for LGBTQ+ people at Kent State University and/or in the surrounding communities. Main Street Kent earned the award for starting the Kent Rainbow Weekend as an opportunity to offer education and support for the greater community. The organization has also raised funds for the LGBTQ+ Emergency Fund, which helps support Kent State students in need.

Awards at LavGrad 2023

A new award takes shape

This year’s award ceremonies introduced a new, physical award, crafted of rainbow-colored blown glass. There is a plan to distribute this new award to LavGrad award recipients, who had received a paper certificate in the past, at Homecoming 2023 at the LGBTQ+ Center’s annual TailGAYte event on Oct. 21.

POSTED: Tuesday, May 9, 2023 03:35 PM
Updated: Monday, May 15, 2023 12:15 PM
Phil B. Soencksen