Follow your heart and remain stubborn

Last month, I delivered the commencement address at the University of Texas at Arlington’s Lavender Graduation, a ceremony celebrating the LGBTQ and ally class of 2024. Returning to my alma mater is always an honor, but this time felt different.

In the last year, regressive legislators, led by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have banned Diversity, Education and Inclusive initiatives at public universities like UT Arlington.

Filed and approved last spring, Texas Senate Bill 17 requires universities to close DEI offices and bans additional initiatives. As a result, LGBTQ-focused offices that provided healthcare, community-focused programming and counseling, as well as other essential programs, shuttered their official university operations by the end of last year.

The LGBTQ program I looked to for resources and community is now gone. Still, what remains and cannot be erased is the spirit of an optimistic staff and courageous students with a bright future ahead of them. As a gay Texas native who now works for a major LGBTQ advocacy organization, I couldn’t ignore the gravity of this moment. I had to speak from my experience of what I gained from being defiant, proud and queer.
Stubborn, even.

So here it is; my University of Texas at Arlington’s Lavender Commencement address:

Good evening, everyone. Thank you to the Intercultural Student Engagement Center for inviting me to tonight’s ceremony. Also, join me and please clap for the graduating Class of 2024!

It is an honor to return to my alma mater in this capacity. My name is Jacob Reyes, and I am the news coordinator for GLAAD, the largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization advocating for inclusive stories in news and entertainment. I have previously worked for NBC 5, the Dallas Morning News and UTA’s award-winning student newspaper, The Shorthorn.

Class of 2024: This is a celebratory moment; I promise it is. Few experiences feel like this, graduating. Let your guard down and embrace this moment.

I know this moment may be difficult, too. As a recent graduate, I get it. UTA is my second home. I studied long nights at the Central Library, met a professor whose wise words are now tattooed on my arm and, yes, I even thought I fell in love with the cutest guy once while we sat in the CAPPA courtyard.

Mostly, I spent countless hours in The Shorthorn newsroom below us. There, I was the student paper’s opinion editor and life and entertainment editor where my passion lay in ensuring the student body felt represented.

I reported on the power of the Black women’s vote in 2020, two alumni who are now successful artists in Dallas (and also married), the potential removal of an early voting location on campus, the 2018 senate election and a profile on an alumna who took to the art of drag to express her true gender identity.

Still, at times, my passion and decisions were questioned. As a member of a marginalized community, could I continue to report on said community? Can a queer reporter report on the university’s annual drag show? Those were actual discussions I had with my colleagues, many of whom were also my friends. That was rough and, quite honestly, troubling.

Still, I remained stubborn and, in my heart of hearts, I knew I was creating a professional and personal journey I could be proud of. Despite pushback, I moved forward, and now it’s my job to ensure my community is not only represented but fairly so.

So now is the time to ask yourself, Class of 2024: What do you have to lose in being stubborn?

As graduating students, members of the LGBTQ community and allies, there is so much operating against us. Our country, our state and our public institutions are regressing at a rapid rate. Reject those regressions and hold onto your convictions. Institutions will try to silence your voices, your identity. Do not let them. Organize, speak out, write on and ensure that your voices are heard.

What we’ve learned from the past is that powers above us will try to silence you. It happened at Stonewall in 1969, in San Francisco in 1979 and as recently as 2020 in the fight for racial equity. Yes, it is even happening now across college campuses in the United States.

You, as students, as graduates, have every right to freely express your beliefs and your identity without fear of pushback — especially today. Remember that.
Even tonight, after even the most recent setbacks on campus, here you are, at a Lavender Graduation, celebrating not only your successes but your community and your freedom to love and express yourself.

That is an act of defiance.

As your influence grows, remain defiant.

If your mission in life is to build community and create a better world or if it is just to simply live, do so with determination. We deserve that much. You deserve that much.

Graduates, you have come so far. You have seen so much. But there is still so much to do. So tonight, in the face of adversity, remain courageous. Embrace what it means to be stubborn. I have seen it in you. Especially these last few months. I see it and I’m hopeful. I believe in you all.

And so, Class of 2024, my message to you is this: Follow your heart and remain stubborn.

Thank you, all.

Jacob Reyes is the news and rapid response coordinator for GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.