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Lavender Graduation Celebration

Prepared Remarks
May 2, 2015

It is truly an honor—and a delight—to be here for the second annual Lavender Graduation Celebration on this campus. This marks my first of many graduation ceremonies this month.

We are here to have fun today and celebrate milestones, such as your personal milestone of graduating from West Virginia University, and your personal milestone of being a proud, brave member of the LGBTQ community.

As president, it is a top priority of mine to make our campus safer, more inclusive, and more accommodating for all Mountaineers—students, faculty, staff and visitors.

Last year, I remember welcoming many of you to Blaney House for a barbecue. We chomped down on rainbow bowtie cookies and I listened to your concerns.

Today, I can say that we have made significant strides and will continue to do so for the betterment of the LGBTQ community and West Virginia University.

The biggest news coming out of the past year has been the state’s decision to stop defending the ban on same-sex marriage. What a great day it is to be able to actually marry the person you love. That’s a remarkable achievement.

As for our campus, I am sure some of you are still wondering about that elusive LGBTQ Center. We’re working hard to make that happen. It will happen.

This Center will develop and deliver outreach initiatives, provide academic support, and act as a social hub for the LGBTQ community.

We are in the process of searching for a director, and of course, we would not have made it this far without the wonderful work of everyone here, particularly the LGBTQ Commission and lifelong advocates like T. Anne Hawkins.

Please give yourself a round of applause.

As I look around the room today, I see stories of inspiration.

For those of you graduating, you will continue to inspire. But remember – the only person you really ever need to inspire is yourself.

It is unfortunate that in this day and age, people who identify themselves as lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender are still prime targets for societal scrutiny.

It is to me, at least.

In some states, such as West Virginia, it remains perfectly legal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity when it comes to employment and housing.

And a few months ago, some of our legislators proposed a bill that would have nullified local antidiscrimination ordinances in West Virginia.

Some of you protested the bill outside the Mountainlair, and in the end, the bill died. Although we exist in a world that trickles with anti-LGBTQ sentiment, the defeat of that bill is a testament to the willpower of our rejection to intolerance.

We will not consume the filth of hatred and bigotry.

That is why you are a story of inspiration.

You stare straight into the eyes of prejudice and you stay true to yourself.

You have marched on stoically as a Mountaineer, despite the weight of being judged or criticized.

Please, never, ever, let go of what makes you you.

Some of you have heard the story of when I became president of this University. I was 36. I was having a horrible time. I wasn’t doing very well.

One day, two or three months into my presidency, a couple of older guys came in.

They said, “Mr. President, you’re failing.” I asked why. I knew I was. They said, “You don’t act, look, or talk like a university President.”

I tried to change. I started wearing ties. I did away with Argyle socks and my blue blazer.

Two things happened. One was the fact that I was still miserable, and the other was that I was still failing. I finally said, “If I’m going to be miserable and fail, I’ll do it my way.” I went back and debated who I was. And 35 years later, I stand before you as the president of the university and those guys are dead.

I tell that story because, do not be who you are not. Don’t let society put you into a box.

Each of you have helped shape West Virginia University, in some form or fashion, into a more accepting campus.

We now have multiple student and advocacy organizations dedicated to the LGBTQ cause.

We have Safe Zone trainings. I actually popped into one the other day our friend Benjamin Seebaugh gave to our University Relations News unit.

Speaking of Benjamin, I am thrilled that this former superstar student is now part of our team, working for the Provost’s Office as an advocate for our LGBTQ Mountaineers.

Ben, I am going to get my Safe Zone sticker and I look forward to that.

Let us all agree that the ultimate goal should be to make all of West Virginia University a Safe Zone.

Together, we can make a difference.

Our vice president of diversity, David Fryson, put it best when he said, “We are continuing on an expansion of the freedom experiment in America.”

Dr. Fryson and I believe in West Virginia University’s land-grant mission to reach out into the communities.

And, we are hopeful that our inclusive character will unfurl throughout the state.

Partnerships, regardless of orientation or gender, are essential to the freedom experiment. Even the straight folks need to speak up for the LGBTQ community. We can no longer be bystanders.

Let us not look so much in the rearview mirror. Let us go full speed ahead.

That applies to everyone here, especially those of you graduating.

You have made your mark at West Virginia University. And whatever roads you choose from here on, remember to go full speed ahead.

Be bold.

Be yourself.

And be part of a Mountaineer nation that respects people’s differences and promotes opportunity, equality, civility, and respect for all.

Thank you.