Kent State Alumni, actor gives tear-jerking speech at Lavender Graduation

Attendees+began+finding+their+seats+as+Lavender+Graduation+was+about+to+begin+on+May+6%2C+2022.

Jesse Khalil

Attendees began finding their seats as Lavender Graduation was about to begin on May 6, 2022.

Jesse Khalil, Reporter

Kent State Alumni and actor Brian Michael Smith stood tall behind the wooden podium as tears rimmed his eyes, “Whoever you want to be, you are the only version of yourself in this world and we need you exactly as you are. Growing, changing …. go out in the world and share it, and contribute it back to the Kent community, because we need you,” he said at Lavender Graduation May 6 in the Kent State Ballroom.

Lavender Graduation was first brought to Kent by the LGBTQ+ center in 2016 as a way to celebrate the accomplishments of graduating seniors within the community. The center gave out awards to members of the community who excelled in areas such as activism, inclusion and promotion.

Winners of the awards:

  • Rising Star: Olivia Kozolowski
  • Out & Proud Leader: Marz Anderson
  • Bridge Builder: United Christian Ministries
  • Faulty/Staff Award: Andrew Snyder
  • Community: Fran Wilson
  • Alumni: Bill Hoover

Graduating seniors apart of the LGBTQ+ community were invited to walk across the stage and give a brief individualized ‘thank you’ speech to their support systems.

Brian Michael Smith gave his speech at Lavender Graduation on May, 6 2022. (Jesse Khalil)

The center thought asking Smith to speak to the graduating class was fitting because of his years of activism and long list of accomplishments on and off the screen, said Lo Denmon, the assistant director of the LGBTQ+ center.

Smith was a member of the Kent State track and field team in 2005. After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his passion for acting and activism. Since then, Smith has been recognized as the first Black transgender man to be featured as a regular on a broadcast network television series. He has been featured in popular series such as “Law and Order: SVU,” “GIRLS” on HBO, “Homeland” on Showtime and many more. In 2021, Smith was recognized as the first transgender male to be featured in People magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive list.

Smith encouraged the members of the community to let their individuality shine once graduating by sharing his own inspirational journey as a transgender male.

When Smith was first coming to his own sense of identity during his time at Kent State in the early 2000’s, there were a lot of people who had an idea of who they wanted him to be, sometimes out of love and sometimes out of fear, he said. However, there comes a point when it no longer matters what people want or expect from you, he said.  You are given the freedom to be unapologetically yourself, which is the message he wanted to leave the graduating class of 2022.

“You truly get to be the expert in you, and that is why identity starts with the letter I, because I define who I am” Smith said. “The same goes for you, because no one in this world knows you better than you know yourself.”

Despite showing up in short shorts, a halter top and pink cowboy hat his freshman year, Smith never felt like he was truly what a girl was.. He shared his battle with his birth gender, speaking on how for eighteen years he “fought to the nail” to be what he thought a girl needed to be, but always felt like he fell short, he said.

“Nothing could stop me from being who I was, and nothing could stop people from seeing who I was despite my best efforts to fight it,” Smith said. “The people of Kent saw me for who I was and accepted me anyways.”

Kent State faculty members Woodin and Ash Mierau smiling in front of the stage at Kent State Lavender Graduation May 6, 2022. (Jesse Khalil)

Smith concluded by addressing the unconditional support the Kent community has to offer.

“There have been people around you, rooting for you,” he said. “Whether it is your chosen family or your birth family, there are people who are rooting for you, and Kent is a community rooting for you now and into your future,”

The crowd erupted into applause and a standing ovation. Attendees like Rachel Kropf, a print media and photography major, were spotted wiping away tears after the empowering speech.

“I felt touched by his words and experiences,” Kropf said. “As a member of the LGBTQ+ community with limited family support, being reminded that the Kent LGBTQ+ center is here and actively improving the lives of people like me is inspiring.”

Others were accompanied by a supportive group of friends and family, such as Marz Anderson, a journalism major who participated in the graduation. As a transfer student, Marz appreciated and admired the nonjudgmental community Kent had to offer.

“Being nontraditional, queer and Black, I don’t feel welcome in all spaces, but I am always welcome here, and I appreciate that,” Marz said.

Mario Anderson, Marz’s father, has been a constant supporter of his son since the day he came out, fighting for his son to “have as much full expression as he can,” he said. When his son came out, Mario was there to answer questions, address any fears his son had and be there to offer unconditional love.

“When it comes to males in general or in minority males, it is hard for them to come out,” Mario said. “To have the support from me as a dad, I feel like that is important and I want to show him he should have no fear in who he is because at the end of the day I will always be his biggest fan and the love doesn’t go away.”

Kalia Jenkins walked proudly across the stage, smiling and waving at her girlfriend Mckayla Thompson who was on her feet clapping and screaming her support from the back row. The two have helped each other along their personal journeys towards acceptance and identity by pushing each other to attend events put together by the LGBTQ+ center, Jenkins said.

“In 2018, my freshman year, Kalia and I went to Pride on the K,” Thompson said. “Going to that and experiencing the community made all of my anxieties and insecurities wash away. I just felt at home, like Kent was home.”

The Kent State LGBTQ+ community provides students with a safe space to express themselves freely. Junior public health major Sydney Early came out to support her friends and also explore the community as a whole. Early has been on her own journey towards identity recently.

“I am a member of the LGBTQ+ community as of recently and it is nice to feel so accepted here and also recognize the accomplishments of the people in my community who I am proudest of,” Early said.

Senior communications major Alexis Wilson said the connections she has made through her time interning at the LGBTQ+ center and being involved on campus is what helped her grow and made her time at Kent State worthwhile. Joining the Kent Clarks, an a capella group on campus, is what she attributed being introduced to “all things queer” and “never looking back,” she said.

“It was the first time I felt free to be whomever I may be, which was a completely liberating experience,” Wilson said.

Her ability to express herself freely was a feeling she never thought was possible, which inspired her to take action and share her story and experiences with the community of people who offer each other unconditional support, she said.

“This electric experience of being allowed to experience an unapologetic, shameless and boundless existence is the experience of humanity and community,” Wilson said. “We as members of this community have the joy and the freedom to be whoever we want and share that while having all the support in the world.”

Jesse Khalil is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected]