By Curtis Lee Ortega, Jr.
Vice President, United Student Pride
Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology, Class of 2014
Today, 17 Fresno State students will make history with our university’s inaugural Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) Commencement Celebration.
I am the chairperson of the committee that made this event a reality. I am honored and proud to be among those first 17 participating in our celebration.
This milestone represents a major step in our personal lives and the broader community. Fresno State prides itself on discovery, diversity and distinction and the presence of an LGBTQ graduation ceremony fittingly underscores that.
This celebration is a dream I pursued based on my own personal history. With poor grades and delinquent behavior, I was almost a high school dropout. Fortunately, I was accepted to a school that offered independent studies and was able to graduate even though I was heckled throughout my high school years for being openly gay. There was even heckling when they announced my name at the graduation ceremony.
I moved to Fresno and started attending Fresno City College. I had a great GPA, was involved with student government, was the treasurer of a LGBTQ club and I chaired the college’s Gay Pride Day.
When I graduated in 2009 I was among many openly gay graduates, and this time, there was no heckling.
Here at Fresno State, I felt that a LGBTQ-geared commencement celebration would provide gay and non-gay, students an opportunity to commemorate such a milestone in a special way.
For us, there are events in our lives that can make or break our spirits: coming out, transitioning genders, bullying, denial of a job, denial of an apartment and general lack of acknowledgement of adversities we face. But for me, college has been “the great equalizer.” My pride in this quest was bolstered when I discovered that the university support for this idea is immense.
When I setup the online form for graduates to submit their RSVP, I only expected about four people to respond.
Well, when we hit 15, I couldn’t believe that even I had underestimated the true impact of this idea and the potential demand that existed for it on our campus.
When President Castro expressed interest in coming to the LGBTQ graduation, we invited him to speak about diversity on campus. He accepted and we are pleased that he will celebrate with us.
It was at this point that I realized that this event is much bigger than myself or any of us inaugural participants.
Not only was I surprised at how many graduates wanted to participate, but the number of faculty and staff who were interested was exciting and motivating.
It underscored the many successes we have seen lately as our world moves to be more understanding and accepting of our community. Recent progress in LGBTQ rights led us to adopt the theme “Agents of Social Change” for this inaugural event: a nod to the simple notion – no, the endearing conviction – that improvements can always be made.
Our keynote speaker, Peter Robertson, is a Fresno State alumnus who now works for our Alumni Association. As a founding member of our USP club 27 years ago, Peter is legend in the local LGBTQ community.
Each graduate will wear a rainbow tassel along with traditional regalia. During the ceremony, graduates will receive a rainbow stole as their names are announced.
I do not look at myself as a pioneer because, really, this has been a group effort long in the making by many before me. So perhaps I am a product of a historical movement towards acceptance/freedom/equality. If so, I am honored to be a part of something so meaningful within the California State University.
We can finally have a graduation ceremony that is reflective of our needs, accomplishments, culture, history and heritage. This day signals a proper beginning for us as we now go out as alumni and contribute to our communities.