A conversation with Dr. Ronni Sanlo

May 6, 2020

by Smitty Smith (they/them/theirs), Writer/Photographer Student Lead

My name is Smitty (they/them/theirs), and I am the Writer/Photographer Student Lead for the IGR, MESA, and Spectrum Center units here at the University of Michigan. On April 30th, Spectrum Center held its annual Lavender Graduation (LavGrad) online. LavGrad is a ceremony that was created by Ronni Sanlo (she/her/hers) in 1995 at the University that celebrates LGBTQ+ graduate students and their achievements. Over the past 25 years, LavGrad has expanded to other institutions -- more than 500 colleges, universities, and even high schools -- across the country.

Sanlo has done incredible social justice work for years, fueled by the obstacles she has faced in her own life. This year, Ronni Sanlo is Michigan’s LavGrad keynote speaker for the 25th anniversary of the creation of the ceremony. Sanlo was also the recipient of an Honorary Lavender Degree and had the graduation Cornerstone Award named after her. 

I had a conversation with Sanlo virtually to get to know more about her and her achievements. In addition to this conversation, you can find out more about Sanlo on her website as well.

Smitty: I read on your website that LavGrad started at the University of Michigan with just three graduates in 1995, and now over 500 colleges and universities offer LavGrad ceremonies. As this year’s keynote speaker, in what ways was this 25-year journey of expansion difficult, and in what ways was it rewarding?

Ronni Sanlo: “The reward, of course -- because that’s the easiest to start with -- is that it was an idea that I had based on the feelings that I was carrying in my heart, both positive and negative, and wanting students to have a very positive experience as their last taste of college. And also because I couldn’t go to my own students’ graduations, it gave me the joy of experiencing the graduation of other students who I’ve come to know and love. 

And then, as it grew -- I didn’t know it was going to grow the way it did, but it did -- I was involved in a number of organizations: I was the first director of the LGBT Consortium, and so through the Consortium -- which started in ‘97 -- we were able to share information about LavGrad and everything else we were doing. And so, other universities started picking it up. And more and more, they did. To watch it grow -- exponentially, it seems -- was just an absolute thrill for me. 

I wrote quite a few articles about Lavender Graduation. I was interviewed many, many times over the years about the creation of Lavender Graduation. And so as more people heard about it, read about it, it was created in other institutions. For me, it’s the legacy I leave to higher education and to LGBTQ students. 

There aren’t that many negatives, except that one year I was at UCLA -- I got there in the fall of ‘97 -- their first Lavender Graduation happened in the spring of ‘98 and it went along without a hitch. But next year, as we started advertising for ‘99, we were getting feedback -- from people, people -- who were saying ‘Well, why do queer people...’ --  and they were using queer in the pejorative at the time -- ‘Why do queer people need their own graduation?’ And it was really difficult trying to explain to people who weren’t open to hearing. And that’s when I realized that there’s no way you can argue with people who are anti-LGBTQ. It’s like arguing with a two-year-old; it just frustrates me and they’re never going to change their mind. So, that was really the most challenging part about it. 

And one of the really, really precious joys that I had was that my parents -- who were president of their P-flag chapter in southern California -- would come to Lavender Graduation every year. My father had a lavender suit jacket, my mother wore a lavender dress, and they always said they came to help support other parents who were there who  might be that supportive of their children yet.”

S: You’ve given many keynotes and presentations in the past. What makes this keynote speech for Michigan’s 2020 Lavender Graduation different from other speeches you’ve done?

R: “Well, my speech would have been much longer because, you know, this year I could only do 4 minutes as requested by Mark [Assistant Director of Spectrum Center] because it’s online. It would have been a 15-minute speech had I been there in person. But the importance of this one, is that this is the 25th anniversary of Lavender Graduation. Lavender Graduation began 25 years ago at the University of Michigan and to be part of the ceremony -- I’m so grateful that Mark invited me -- and just to be present as people are experiencing Lavender Graduation, that’s just the best part of it. So the importance of it to me is that 25th year anniversary and celebrating it at the place where it began.”

S: Over the years, when you directed Michigan’s LGBT center and later UCLA’s, did you have a guiding philosophy that inspired your advancements at the centers? If so, what did this philosophy include? 

R: “When I first got to Michigan, on my first day, Dr. Royster Harper -- although she wasn’t a doctor yet -- took me out to lunch. She was my supervisor, and she took me out to lunch and she said to me, ‘No matter what you do in higher education, keep the student at the center of your focus.’ And that, in that instant, became my philosophy. Everything I did at Michigan and then at UCLA was because there was a student at the center of my focus who needed help in some way. And if there was one student, there were many. And so that became my guiding philosophy.”

S: What advice would you give staff and LGBTQ+ students in these centers? 

R: “Most of the time, it really wasn’t advice-giving that was my work. Most of the time, my work as director at both of the centers, was to teach the rest of the university about what it meant to be LGBT. And you know when I was at Michigan, it was just lesbian and gay, and I changed it to bisexual and transgender; we weren’t using queer yet. But my job was to teach the university how to treat LGBT students so that our students could be well served everywhere -- certainly within the LGBT center -- but everywhere on campus, so that the entire campus would become a safe place. So my job was teaching in education primarily to the campus community, and when I worked with students directly one-on-one, what I discovered early on was mostly, they needed somebody to listen to them without judgment. And that’s what I tried to do so often; is to be present so that I could listen, so that I could give a hug to a student who wanted and needed one so that I could cheer them on when they were feeling down, and be excited for them when they had successes, and for them to know that they always had a safe place and a safe person with whom they could talk.”

S: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned during your professional career?

R: “Oh my god, um, well one lesson was I should have started this career at the age of 22 instead of the age of 47. And then, knowing that if I’m in a position to create change on a college campus, then my responsibility is to write about it and publish it so that other people can use that information on their campuses. So, casting the widest net to share information. There’s power in information, but there’s more power if more people have the information. So that was a very important piece.

Another piece was the day I discovered that I was white. I had gone to a racial immersion workshop; I was fifty years old, I grew up in the south and never thought about being white, and realized that that was the privilege of being white -- was that I never had to think about it. And yet, my friends and colleagues and students who were people of color thought about their race every single day. And that made me realize, that from the age of eleven, I thought about being a lesbian every. single. day. And heterosexual had the priviledge of never thinking about it. And all of that really changed the way in which I started doing social justice work.”

S: I saw on your website that you write Readers’ Theater plays. What inspired your creation of these plays?

R: “You know, I’ve always been a writer. And I’ve been retired for ten years and I’ve written some stuff, but something happened a few years ago where I wrote a book and I thought, ‘yeah, this book would be a great play,’ and I just started writing the play. I had no idea how to do it, I didn’t know what I was doing, and it was really awful. But the point was that I love the medium. And so I started writing other plays, and I’ve gotten pretty darn good at it actually. So, it’s just a medium that I love. I love writing dialogue, and it’s fun for me, and it keeps me off the streets. It’s just a fun thing.”

S: What are some activities that are helping you get through this unprecedented time/pandemic?

R: “Well, writing is one. And we [Ronni Sanlo and Dr. Kelly Watson] live in the Pacific Northwest so we do a lot of hiking. And so we’re out walking on the beach or hiking in the woods. And we have a boat, so we're over by the boat. We just don’t go out in public unless we have to go to a grocery store, and when we do we wear masks and gloves. That’s the best we can do for now, but it’s good, and we’re not bored at all. Neither one of us.”