From Here It's Possible: the 2023 Texas Tech University Lavender Graduation Speech
This weekend, I had the pleasure and privilege of delivering the 2023 Texas Tech University Lavender Graduation Speech. I'm an alumnus of Texas Tech University (B.A. History, 1989) and this was my first trip back to Texas Tech since graduating nearly 34 years ago!
As I've written here in the past, my Texas Tech education, life in Texas and study abroad experience helped make me who I am today. So I was particularly excited to have an opportunity to share that story with this year's LGBTQ graduates of Texas Tech at a graduation ceremony just for them held on campus at Texas Tech on Friday, April 28, 2023 (which was also Arbor Day - fitting!).
Here's the text of my speech. To learn more about Texas Tech's fantastic LGBTQ engagement programs, visit the Texas Tech Office of LGBTQIA Education and Engagement webpage.
"Hello and good evening. Congratulations to all of the graduates. Let’s give them a round of applause! What an accomplishment it is to be graduating from college! And I’ll bet for some of you, today is a hard-won victory. I get it. I remember. But more on that later…
"Thank you, Katie, for that very kind – and long! - introduction. As Katie mentioned, my name is Ben Finzel. I was born in Washington, D.C. and I’ve lived there most of my life. But I went to college here at Texas Tech more than 30 years ago. In fact, this is the first time I’ve been back to Lubbock since I graduated in 1989. I realize that is longer than most of you have been alive. And that’s either amazing or shocking. Or maybe both.
"To begin, let’s go back to DC for a moment. Yes, I am an East Coast city guy. I support DC statehood, I love the diverse neighborhoods and people who call our city and region home and I thrive on the kind of life that living in an east coast metropolitan area makes possible. But I am also a proud Red Raider. I wouldn’t trade my Texas Tech education for anything.
"In fact, it’s that combination: DC and Texas Tech - that made me who I am today and that has shaped my work, my career and my outlook. And I think it’s part of the reason for my success. I will be forever proud to be a native Washingtonian AND forever grateful to Texas Tech for the education I received in the classroom and in life.
"And let me say what an honor it is to be here with you today. When Gilbert asked me to be the 2023 Lavender Graduation speaker last fall, I was flattered and then, once the reality of the invitation sunk in, I was blown away. You’ve been asked to go back to your alma mater to address the graduating class of LGBTQ students? Wow. The young, closeted student that I was in 1989 would never have imagined this was possible.
"You heard that right. Yes, I was in the closet when I was at Tech. You may be, well, you probably ARE saying, ummm…really? YOU were in the closet? Kinda the same reaction I get now when I tell people that I went to Texas Tech. They just don’t know how that could be true. YOU went to college in Texas?
"But yes, I was and yes I did. The 1980s in Texas were a different time. Don’t get me wrong, Texas Tech was great and I enjoyed my time as a student here. But we had no role models for coming out or being out on campus. There was no such thing as the Office of LGBTQIA Education and Engagement. There were no formal campus LGBTQ groups. There was no Lavender Graduation. Yes, there were gay people here, but it took a special kind of clarity and strength to be out on campus in the 80s. And I just wasn’t there yet. I was not ready.
"That’s what I want to talk about today: role models. I think we ALL have a responsibility to be role models to those who come after us. I’ve tried to do that by starting an LGBTQIA-specific scholarship at the Texas Tech Alumni Association, the RENEWPR LGBTQIA Endowed Scholarship. And I’ve started a networking group in DC for LGBTQ communications professionals to create opportunities for us all to connect and help each other grow and advance in our careers. I’m also working with a dozen other LGBTQ and multicultural PR agency owners in The Change Agencies to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in our industry so that we look like the people we serve. And that work is especially important right now at a time when some elected officials and other leaders seem more interested in denying our humanity than in elevating and celebrating it.
"As you graduate and make plans to stay in Lubbock for grad school or a new job or move on to the four corners of the earth, I hope you’ll think about your responsibility and opportunity to serve as a role model for the next generation of LGBTQ students behind you. I don’t have to tell you that college can be extra: there are a lot of people here…a lot more than when I was a student! And if you’re from an environment that is different than Lubbock, either because of size or attitude or approach or whatever, it can be intimidating or worse to just be here.
"But it doesn’t have to be. Think about the impact your being out and your being willing to talk with other students about your experience could have on a young LGBTBQ person attending college here. Think about the encouragement and the inspiration you can give to someone just by saying 'it’s okay, you’re okay, and you’re going to be fine.' Think about the example of just living your life that you can provide to someone simply by telling your story and showing that being out needn’t be intimidating or scary.
"There are lots of ways you can do this, but a great place to start is by joining the Alumni Association and the Pride Network and learning about ways you can give back to campus, the school and your fellow alumni. It’s also a great way to build your network as you build your career.
"And hey, if you want to start a scholarship, you can do that too. Let me tell you why I have endowed the RENEWPR LGBTQIA Endowed Scholarship.
"I came to Tech because I didn’t want to follow the rest of my high school to Austin and that school. I wanted something different. And wow did I find it! At first, my choice of Tech was because it wasn’t Austin or College Station or Houston. I’ll never forget landing at the airport - it had six gates back then - and seeing nothing but a cotton field and a two-lane highway. For a city kid from DC by way of Houston, it was a shock.
"But I dove right in. And I grew to love being here. Writing in Texas Monthly in May of 1989, Molly Ivins said “in Lubbock, the world is about 88.3 percent sky.” And she was right. It is a certain kind of beautiful here. And for every time the wind shifted and the smell of manure filled the air, I knew I could only be in one place. Kinda like today and our weather!
"It’s funny, for many people here, Lubbock may be more of the same of what they know. For me in 1985, it was a new environment. I was used to diverse and different people and experiences. And Lubbock in the 80s was, well, how do I put this…white. And straight. So it was a learning experience for me for sure. And that’s what a college education is supposed to be.
"At Tech, I was a member of University Center Programs (which I guess is now called Tech Activities Board?) and I ran the film program for one year. I was also on air at KTXT-FM. It’s true: I have a face for radio! I served as news director for one semester, I was on air as one of the weekly jazz program hosts and did an overnight open playlist show every Saturday night for a semester. I was that guy who played U2, Tina Turner, Jackson Browne, Peter, Paul and Mary and Def Leopard - a request, I might add - all in the same show.
"I consider myself so lucky that I was able to go to college at all and so fortunate that I somehow found myself here. I’m forever grateful to my grandparents and my dad for giving me the wherewithal to enroll and to stay here and to be the first recipient of a study abroad scholarship at Tech. As I said, I am a proud Red Raider.
"But going to school here gave me something more: perspective. I was born in DC and lived there for the first 14 years of my life. I was literally 'inside the Beltway.' My local news was national news. I used to hang out with my friend Robert at his dad’s office on the weekends. In the Department of Justice. My friend James’s dad was a columnist for The Washington Post. That was my worldview.
"So coming to the plains of west Texas was eye-opening, and not just for the wide open spaces or the Prairie Dog Town in the middle of the city. Being here showed me another perspective on life and living and people. It exposed me to people who grew up on farms and ranches raising animals or growing crops. And it introduced me to kids who grew up in cities, but cities far different from the one I had called home before moving to Texas from DC. For example, my high school, Bellaire Senior High School in Houston (shout out to the Cardinals!) had a Future Farmers of America chapter.
"What did that different perspective teach me? That there is more than one way to look at something. That there are people who may see things differently than you, and that’s okay. That we may share the same beliefs and values, but for different reasons and that we might get to the same place, but by different routes. And that’s okay too.
"It taught me about life. About reality. About who people are and where they came from. It may not have been particularly diverse, but it taught me a kind of diversity. And it gave me a sense of difference that shaped how I see the world to this day. I believe that this lesson is part of the reason I’ve been successful in work and in life.
"Don’t get me wrong: I’m still a lefty, liberal, progressive who is committed to doing as much as possible about climate change as fast as possible, but I’m also a pragmatist. In my day-to-day work, I’m focused on finding common ground and working on those things that many people - not all - but many, can agree on about energy and environmental topics. I want to spend my time getting things done that will make an impact, not just doing things that stir the pot without any results to show for it. I am there in the middle working with other folks from the left and the right who are responsible, reflective, and reasonable and who want to get things done.
"But that doesn’t mean I’ll compromise on equity. We are all deserving of the same rights, opportunities and treatment and when some of us are disadvantaged in that pursuit, we must all work together to ensure that changes for the better. We can’t fully address our energy and environmental challenges without addressing the role of equity in doing so.
"And that is what Texas Tech gave me. I didn’t know it at the time. In fact, I didn’t really identify it until I launched my firm, RENEWPR, in 2015. When I did, I realized that my pragmatic, but progressive, outlook should inform the direction and focus of my firm’s work. And it does. The work I do, and the clients I’m proud to partner with, are all focused on working in that expanding middle where things can and do get done. And that too is part of the reason I’ve been successful.
"So, back to the scholarship before I close and we get on with the show and the reason you’re all here today.
"I wanted to endow a scholarship at Tech because I wanted to give other kids like me or not that much like me the opportunity to get an education and build a career for themselves. And I wanted them to be able to do that at Texas Tech. If we all just retreat to our corners and only send progressive kids to progressive schools and conservative kids to conservative schools, we’re never going to see the kind of world most of us want to live in. And we shouldn’t have to segregate ourselves based solely on our beliefs or backgrounds. We should be exposed to other people and other ways of thinking. It doesn’t mean we have to embrace or even understand them all, but it does mean we have to acknowledge and consider them. And be influenced by them.
"I hope you’ll take that lesson with you today as you embark on the next stage of your lives with that fantastic Texas Tech degree in hand. And I hope you’ll consider what you can do, even if only by the force of your example, to help lift up another LGBTQ kid coming up behind you who might need only to see that from here, it’s possible.
"Thank you. And congratulations to you all!"