On Friday, May 4, Amherst College held the fifth annual Lavender Graduation, a commencement celebration recognizing the achievements and lives of 25 members of the class of 2017. During the celebration—which is hosted by the Amherst College Queer Resource Center and celebrates the achievements of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and ally students—graduates invite a special individual to share that student’s hopes, dreams, and memories of Amherst College with the audience. 

Darien McFadden, psychotherapist at the Amherst College Counseling Center, presented the evening's keynote. McFadden initially worked at the Counseling Center from 1992 to 1998 and returned to Amherst in 2006 after stints at Behavioral Health Network/Pioneer Valley Mental Health Services in Springfield, Mass. and Hampshire College. McFadden's clinical interests include college mental health, identity development and awareness, sexual orientation, gender and coming out issues, and conflicts around race, culture and ethnicity.

The following are his remarks from Lavender Graduation. 

Darien McFadden at the Lavender Graduation ceremony
Darien McFadden at Lavender Graduation


I want to extend a welcome to all of the amazing Class of 2017 Lavender Graduates, families, friends, and allies.

To the graduates, specifically, I want to say how incredibly proud I am of each of you!

I have had the privilege over the course of your time here, of learning about many of your stories. I know how hard you’ve worked, and that knowledge makes this moment even more significant.

When Angie asked me to be the keynote speaker for Lavender Graduation this year, my first response was a bit of a freak out. 

I am definitely not a public speaker, and count that as one of the two things I’d prefer to avoid if possible (flying is the other, and so I am grateful that I didn’t have to fly to give this speech).  

After my little mini freak out moment, I realized that I didn’t really have a choice about giving this speech—certainly not because anyone was forcing me to speak, but because I have tremendous affection for Amherst’s queer students.

I will admit that I was worried that maybe I didn’t actually have anything particularly profound to say. This is, after all, a momentous event in your lives, and I felt conscious of wanting to share something appropriately deep. 

Well, I can’t promise that what I am going to say will be deep, but I can promise that it will be from the heart. I thought, “What would I have wanted someone to say to me upon graduating from college 29 years ago?”

People talked a lot back then about making plans, having plans, establishing plans… plans, plans, plans, “think of the future”, “what do you want to do”, “what field are you going to go into”, “how are you gonna get there”…sound familiar?

Truth is that having a plan is important. Certainly. It helps us to know what general direction we might start out on whatever journey we’re gonna take.

But the reality of life is that shit happens, and sometimes our plans kinda go out the window.

It is no secret to people who know me that I am in my dream job.  From the time I knew that I wanted to go into the field of psychotherapy, I was certain that I wanted to work in college counseling.

 To this point in my career, I have worked at three other colleges and universities, but it is Amherst that has felt like home to me. Not because of the place itself, but because of all of you.

You have made Amherst College home for me. All of this is to say, that I am right where I had “planned” to be…. But the road here was not a straight one (pun intended). 

So plan away, but be flexible, persistent, and patient. 

And be ready for the curve balls that life will inevitably throw your way.

So, I knew I didn’t really want to go that route in talking to you all tonight.  You will hear enough about being plan-ful in the days to come.

I’m also sure that over the next few weeks, and beyond, you will get plenty of encouragement and advice from well-meaning elders, about what to do in your lives after Amherst. Well, full disclosure here: I’m about to add to that.

As I’ve already noted, I’m not going to tell you how to plan, what job offers to consider, which grad programs to choose, or what part of the country to live in (although all of those things are important, and worth consideration).

I really just have one thing to encourage, and that is that YOU BE TRULY YOU. 

So I realize that someone telling you to be yourself sounds awfully cliché, and I’m sure I’m not the first to say this to you.  “Be yourself, yada, yada, yada…” Of course. Why not? 

But my point is that this isn’t always going to be as easy as it sounds. There will be significant challenges to this throughout your lives, and times when it might feel easier to avoid being or revealing whom you really are.

I think back to when I was in graduate school.

I went right after graduating from college, and it was there that I very slowly began to come out as a gay man, a process that continued and accelerated when I moved to Amherst at the age of 25. 

I moved out here to do my doctoral internship at UMass. When I started it, I didn’t identify myself as a gay man to my colleagues and supervisors.

I was new in my career, and I suppose that there was a part of me that worried about whether my supervisors and colleagues would care about this aspect of my identity, and whether it could hurt me professionally.

Truth is, I think some of them knew anyway, but what I remember most about this time is that it was SO uncomfortable—and increasingly so as that year progressed—not allowing myself to BE myself.  

Now we all know what it feels like to be that kind of uncomfortable. It’s a self-consciousness…like when you were a first-year student and found yourself hanging out with people that deep down you knew were not the best fit for you.

Or those moments in that class discussion when you had something to say, but it didn’t feel safe to do so, for whatever reason. 

I think back to that year, and I wonder how much I actually missed, because I wasn’t being honest about myself. I wonder if I missed opportunities for connection with students that I worked with, or colleagues at the clinic that might’ve been healing or enriching.  

With time, distance, and a healthy understanding of development, I can accept that that was part of my process and it all happened for a reason.

My identity as a gay man was developing, and I needed to go through that discomfort to find my meaning and my voice.

In retrospect, that was an important year. Nonetheless, when I started at Amherst the following year, I was hell bent on being true to myself.

Part of what that meant for me at that time was giving voice to aspects of my identities. Being open, being honest, and allowing students that I worked with, access to authentic versions of my self in my work with them.

Now you might hear this little vignette and think that so much of this doesn’t really apply in 2017, after all, I initially moved to this area in 1991, several years before most of you were even born.

Surely things are different in 2017, right?

Well, the reality is that perhaps things today aren’t quite as different as they should be. We don’t actually know what lies ahead for us as a community, or as country, so perhaps some similar challenges will exist for you.  

During your time at Amherst, you’ve witnessed significant moments in history that have impacted our community.

You’ve seen the landmark ruling on federal gay marriage and a new more mainstreamed awareness of issues impacting the trans community. 

Yet, you’ve also seen a tremendous rise (or in reality, perhaps just the increased visibility and report) of hate crimes against diverse communities, which reminds us that the sting of oppression and hatred still exists. 

This is the world that all of you are going into, and these dichotomies reveal some of the challenges that lie ahead for you. 

Indeed, one could see that it might not always be so easy to be one’s self. But what does it even mean to be one’s self?

We talk a great deal at Amherst about intersecting identities. Hopefully, part of what you have taken from those discussions is that identity is both complicated and rich.

The thing about identity is that while some aspects of our identities feel constant, others evolve over time. Some aspects of who you are (the person that I’m encouraging you to be) will develop, shift, and expand as you grow and experience life.  

So the person that you are on May 21st, when your lives as Amherst students come to an end, is not the same person that you will be at your 5th reunion…

… Or when you get your doctoral degree…

 … Or receive your first big promotion…

… Or when you meet the love of your life.

In truth you will find opportunities and challenges to coming out around aspects of your identity throughout, and for the rest of your lives…whether that is around your gender-identity, sexuality, ethnic status, cultural perspective, or political point of view (just to name a few).

People that you meet when you leave this campus (in two weeks and three days), will forever make assumptions about who you are based on how you look… 

… Where you’re from…

… What you do…

… Who you love…

… And even where you went to school. 

So, therein lies some of the challenge of being yourself. It won’t always be convenient, or neat, or easy, and sometimes, it won’t even be safe.  

I encourage you to trust yourselves. Take stock of what doesn’t feel right. 

Those moments of discomfort are important, sometimes revealing opportunities for growth, and sometimes revealing the need for honesty with yourselves and those around you. 

All of you have demonstrated the ability to survive an academically rigorous educational experience, but what is even more powerful and ultimately more important, is that you are able to manage the rigors and challenges of life. 

One important step toward that end is to step out into your post-Amherst lives with honesty and integrity.

 Oh, and one other thing…you will FAIL.

Now, maybe “failure” feels like an inappropriate thing to bring up at a graduation ceremony, but bear with me.

Failure is important.

Look around this room for a moment.

Everyone in this room over the age of 30 has failed at something, whether that be a task, a job, or even a relationship. Failure doesn’t have to define you, but it can help you figure out your edges and your passions.

It can be strength-building and character-defining.

And…it is actually unavoidable.

Life, experience, and (ultimately) success requires a few failed attempts.

If you lean into those difficult moments, and steady yourselves through them, you’ll find that you won’t break. 

You’ll bend with the challenges, like the tree that sways and remains flexible in the storm.

I’ll end with a quote that I’ve always liked. 

A couple of you in this room tonight might know that I’ve always fancied myself a bit of a frustrated writer—though perhaps after tonight some of you are thinking that I should stick to my day job.  

When I was younger, I used to keep a little notebook of quotes and ideas that inspired and fueled my writing. I’ll share one of those quotes with you tonight. It’s by Nietzsche. 

“At bottom every man knows well enough that he is a unique being, only once on this earth; and by no extraordinary chance will such a marvelous picturesque piece of diversity in unity as he is, ever be put together a second time.”

Strive to be your marvelous, unique selves.

It has been a highlight of my career to have been able to know and work with so many of you.

And, it has been an indescribable honor to be with you tonight.

I wish you good lives.