Anyone who personally knows me would probably associate me with all things geeky: superhero films, comic books, sci-fi worlds, etc., (you get the point). But I don’t just see superheroes as a superficial personal interest. I am serious when I tell you that they inspire, empower, and educate me. I always try to tell my friends how superheroes have long had a connection with marginalized communities. Frankly, though, I would have to write another article to give that connection enough justice.
But, for now, just consider how the plot of X-Men mirrors the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Rights Movement. See for yourself by checking out Bobby Drake (a.k.a. Iceman) “coming out” to his family as a mutant in the the 2003 film X2: X-Men United or watch the main X-Men film trilogy and see how Professor Charles Xavier mimics Martin Luther King Jr. in his desire to fight for equality, harmony, and understanding between humans and super-powered mutants. While at times working alongside Professor X and the X-Men, the metal-bending superhuman Magneto serves as an ideological counterpart to Xavier. Magneto grows to believe that mutants have a right to self-determination and justice by any means necessary and forms a “Brotherhood of Mutants”- all in a style reminiscent of Malcolm X. Finally, Mystique, a shapeshifting mutant who appears blue and scaly in her natural form, learns to accept herself for who she is, redefining what is normal, rather than let others control how she feels about herself. One unforgettable scene from X2: X-Men United remains with me to this day. In the scene Nightcrawler, another mutant, also with a blue reptilian appearance, questions Mystique on why she doesn’t use her shapeshifting to conceal her true form:
Nightcrawler: “Then why not stay in disguise all the time? You know, look like everyone else.
Mystique: “Because we shouldn’t have to.”
Clearly, the world of X-Men, along with so many other superhero, fantasy, and science fiction realms, can teach us a great amount about our own societies and identities. I’ve always been able to relate to the themes of social marginalization, discrimination, and identity development that are woven into superhero plots. These themes have made such a difference for me as a gay guy growing up, trying to feel more confident and comfortable with my sexuality.
However, it wasn’t until recently that I truly appreciated the superheroes who walk among me on Amherst’s campus. On Thursday, May 8th, eighteen LGBTQIA seniors gathered together in the Friedmann Room to be honored by members of the Amherst College community for the Second Annual Lavender Graduation. In 1995, The first Lavender Graduation was created by Dr. Ronni Sanlo at the University of Michigan with only three graduates. However, the ceremony has been recreated by a variety of colleges and universities ever since.
This year, Amherst honored eighteen individuals. Each of the eighteen graduating seniors had a close friend or family member speak on their behalf. Activist and educator Kim Crosby delivered the keynote speech. I remember my ears instantly perking up when she mentioned superheroes. What did superheroes have to do with a graduation ceremony? Well, Crosby insisted that we all had special gifts (not superpowers but our own unique interpersonal capabilities); queer people could use their unique privileges and abilities to be superheroes to other queer people within their communities. More importantly, she emphasized how being openly queer in a heteronormative world is in itself an act of imagining a new world; it’s practicing science fiction. Just being open and confident with who we are has a beneficial effect on other members of our community, but it also makes our world a better place by breaking down unacceptable structures of the status quo.
Lavender Graduation is the one event where LGBTQIA and ally seniors from all walks of life come together to be honored for successfully completing four years at Amherst College. What motivated these eighteen queer students to come together that night to celebrate and be celebrated? Like Amherst itself, Amherst’s LGBTQIA students come from a variety of cultural, political, and social contexts. Some of these seniors had been student-athletes or student-journalists. Others were former Pride Alliance Co-chairs, geologists, and even Fulbright Scholars. A handful of them actually had been several of these things throughout their time at the College.
Nonetheless, they all felt their presence at Lavender Graduation was incredibly important for the greater community. I definitely don’t want to speak for them: each of them has a unique story that probably motivated them to be a part of the ceremony. However, I suspect that they also came together because even at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, queer students’ experiences are unique: at times, very similar to those of everyone else, while at other times completely exceptional and challenging.
My sophomore year at Amherst College officially came to an end recently, and I finally went back home. I had been quite open about my sexuality this past semester at Amherst, having served as a Co-Chair of Pride Alliance and writing articles like this one for AC Voice. Still, I was somewhat hesitant to hold the hand of another guy as we passed by strangers on the street in my hometown. At Amherst, I definitely don’t experience as much hesitation when it comes to same-sex affection; I am completely honest about my sexuality. But, despite its progressiveness, as an elite, competitive liberal arts college, Amherst can still be a tough place to be a queer student. For me, it has definitely helped to be able to look up to a diverse group of successful and confident queer seniors assembling together at the end of each Amherst year.
Along with my fellow Pride Alliance Co-Chair, Bonnie Drake ’17, I had the privilege of inviting all of these eighteen superheroes to the stage to be honored. They were a special force of queer superheroes: Amherst’s own Lavender 18. Some of them have accomplished so much for the queer community. For example, one senior, Liya Rechtman ’14, among many other accomplishments, pioneered the first Lavender Graduation last year as a Pride Alliance Co-Chair. But, to me, more importantly, all of them are also leaders in the queer community for just being who they are. And the great thing about it all is that it’s not just openly queer people who can be these everyday superheroes: closeted queer people and allies can also make Amherst a more accepting and supportive place.
Amherst’s queer community is incredibly intersectional and diverse. However, while we are indeed woven into every other community on campus and have had a range of unique experiences, we still have this amazing capacity to come together (and not just for Lavender Graduation). In my eyes, queer community is about seeing another queer person and knowing that they are going through similar experiences right along with you. It’s about not feeling alone. Before I came out, I felt so lost and isolated inside. Fortunately, when I came out at the start of my freshman year, I gradually found myself surrounded by queer students and allies who have supported me so much and have had consistently had my back, whether they were my best friends or from completely different social spheres.
To graduating queer seniors and allies, whether you’re part of the Lavender 18 or not, I just want to say: thank you. Thank you so much for being leaders even when you didn’t realize it. Thank you for just existing and being who you are. There is no way that I would have been able to have the confidence to be myself at Amherst without looking up to all of you. It wasn’t only your queer leadership or accomplishments, but just being who you are, unconditionally and completely. Your existence is enough.
Anyway, when you go see X-Men: Days of Future Past in theaters this weekend (which you will see because the X-Men are incredible, as I’ve hopefully proven), please don’t forget to remember and honor the everyday superheroes in our daily lives.