Macalester Lavender Graduation 2017 Speech

Yesterday I had the privilege of being invited to speak at Macalester College’s 2017 Lavender Graduation ceremony. Yes, my alma mater is so cool that they have a graduation just for the LGBTQIA+ students — and there are so many graduating queer and trans students that they had to curl all the way around the stage. There were more students standing up in that graduation ceremony than there were in the entire queer and trans student group when I was at Mac.

It was an emotional and beautiful ceremony with a lot of great speakers. But I don’t have the text of what they said, so here’s what I said to the LGBTQIA+ graduating class of 2017:

Thank you, it’s a delight to get to speak to you. Just so you know, when I chose to come to Mac in 1989, it was because the queer and trans student group was bigger than the football team. I’m glad to see Mac has carried on that proud tradition.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the author of four queer & trans young adult novels. Including Being Emily, the first YA novel to tell the story of a trans girl from her perspective.

And I kind of wanted to get up here and tell you that writing a speech is harder than writing a novel, but it isn’t. They’re both hard.

I thought I’d be clever and go back to my journal, the year I graduated Macalester, 1993, and find something smart I was thinking about so I could build this speech around that quote.

But it turns out that what I wrote about back then was …

  • The girls I wanted to date
  • Who I wasn’t dating
  • Who was dating the girl I wanted to date
  • The girl I’d broken up with
  • And wasn’t getting back together with
  • The girl I might ask out
  • The girl I kissed

You get the idea. At first I wasn’t even going to admit that to all of you. I was pretty embarrassed. I mean, Mac’s a great school and my journal is 90% about girls.

Now I did find one good quote and we’re going to get to that in a bit, but first, here’s the thing … I came to Mac, like you did, to get an education. And I thought I knew what an education meant.

I learned a ton here. And as you can see from my journal, a lot of what I needed to learn turned out to be social. I needed to know how to be in a community. I need to know how to be a healthy, out lesbian person. I didn’t know how much I needed that.

Mac’s a great academic school, but it’s especially great if you’re lesbian, bi, gay, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, pansexual, nonbinary and so on … It’s a great culture and a great community.

In fact, let’s check in for a minute about what you thought you’d learn the last four years and what you did learn. Faculty, parents, friends, feel free to hop in on this even if you went to another school — this is pretty non-scientific. Can I get a show of hands: how many of you came here thinking you were going to get some really good knowledge and you did?

Great. Okay for these next questions if your parents or other adults are sitting next to you and you don’t want to raise your hand, just give me a knowing look. It’ll be between you and me. But if you’re cool with it, show of hands … how many of you also learned:

  • Emotional well-being — learned to take better care of yourself
  • Cultural diversity — how to have fun with people different from you?
  • How to be out more as yourself?
  • Who became a better friend?
  • Got less afraid of anything?

Awesome, thank you. [Note to current readers: many, many hands went up for these questions. It was great to see!]

Some of that was really unexpected, wasn’t it? You didn’t know it — and you even didn’t know it was there to learn. Because there’s all the stuff you know … and you often know a lot of things you don’t know. Maybe you don’t know how to speak Arabic, or how to run for political office, and you want to learn that.

There is a whole universe beyond that … what you have no idea that you don’t know. You have no idea it’s out there for you to experience. To steal a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, those are your “unknown unknowns.”

When I graduated, I knew I wanted to be a writer and I didn’t really know how to do that – but I knew that I didn’t know how to do that. My unknown unknowns included how many ways there are to be a writer, how deep that journey is, how much it would change me. I set out be a fantasy and science fiction writer — another unknown unknown was how much I would adore writing young adult fiction.

So the one thing I want to give you today to take into your post-Mac life is that in all our lives the unknown unknowns will always be infinitely bigger than we expect.

The unpredictable will happen more often than you think it will. You will stumble into the inconceivable. You will change and become more yourself at the same time.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal in 1993, the weekend after the last day of class, right before graduation:

I always think of whatever great physicist said, “Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I can move the earth.” I think that’s also true in a person’s life. Mine, for example. If I had a place to stand outside of my social programming and the limitations of human nature, I could move anything. But there’s nowhere to stand.

Twenty-four years of unknown unknowns later, I would like to amend that. Here’s a place to stand — a place to be: with part of yourself in wonder and the other part in community.

I hope as you graduate, you go out into the world not thinking about how much you know, or how much you have yet to learn, but with a significant part of yourself located in that space of unknown unknowns — in curiosity and wonder.

And with the other part of yourself grounded in community. (For the record, due to the miracle of Facebook and therapy, I am still friends with some of the girls I wrote about in my journal back in 1993.)

Mac creates a very safe space to explore all the wonder the world has to offer you. You’re not leaving that space, you’re just expanding it outward. The boundaries of the campus go with you. As do the community bonds you’ve forged here and all your learning about how to be in community.

I hope you will stay grounded in your community and be full of wonder.

Thank you.

Returning home after the ceremony with my rainbow tassel. Since we didn’t have Lavender Graduation in 1993, I was retroactively granted the tassel, which now sits happily on my shelf of accomplishments. Go Mac!

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