COLUMBIA — The room filled with processional music as nine soon-to-be graduates of MU filed into their seats in Neff Auditorium on Thursday.
One by one, the graduates stood to receive a lavender cord, which was placed around their neck to honor the influence they have had in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community over the years.
One of the participants in MU's first Lavender Graduation is Asher Kolieboi, who began his career at MU searching for acceptance. He leaves behind a legacy of struggle and progress — and the group that he helped create, Queer People of Color.
“I feel like so much of my queerness has to do with my color, the way I live my life," Kolieboi said. "It's not a lifestyle, it's my life."
Queer People of Color has been in full existence since the fall. Most of the group's members are black, though there are a few members of other ethnicities.
The group is not an official student organization, but its members participate in classroom panels, discussion groups and on-campus programming. They were heavily involved with a referendum, approved by MU students last month, that added gender identity and expression to the Missouri Students Association constitution's non-discrimination clause.
Queer People of Color is not completely separate from MU's other groups for gay students, which are typically associated with white people, Kolieboi said. But the two groups usually deal with different issues.
“Nationally, the LGBT community is often presented as being all white, and I can’t say that doesn’t affect our campus and our community,” Kolieboi said. “Growing up, you think that all queer people are white because it’s what you see on TV, or all queer people are American. That’s what I grew up thinking. It's very diverse.”
Ryan Black, coordinator of MU's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Resource Center, said the groups have a similar purpose.
“We are all advocating similar things,” said Black, who is not a member of Queer People of Color. “We (the resource center) are more general across the board whereas (Queer People of Color) focuses on race issues in the community.”
Kolieboi said there is a need to expand the gay and lesbian community to include issues of race, health care, poverty and AIDS.
“The gay agenda is made by rich white people," Kolieboi said. "We need to expand what is gay in our community."
Being gay and black at MU has been a trying experience for Kolieboi, who grew up in a predominately white neighborhood in St. Louis and headed to Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph when he graduated from high school.
At Missouri Western, Kolieboi realized he couldn’t fully express his true identity, so he transferred to MU to establish his life as a transgendered black person.
But even at MU, Kolieboi said he did not feel fully accepted. He decided that there needed to be a place where people could come together and discuss the struggles of being both gay and non-white at MU, a complex area to feel safe in because of mid-Missouri conservatism, he said.
“There’s progress to be made and work to be done,” Kolieboi said about MU. “Mizzou and mid-Missouri is kind of a hodgepodge of really old-school conservatism.”
Kolieboi said he wanted to form the group because he and others felt alienated by students on campus and by other organizations for gay students in which race is often ignored.
“It is an issue because people feel like they are being doubly discriminated,” said Ashley Price, an MU senior and co-founder of the group.
Kolieboi cited the TransAction Team as an example of the exclusion of non-white gay students. The TransAction Team, which started last spring, lays the groundwork for transgendered people on campus but doesn't boast a lot of non-white members.
“As a trans student of color, that is a particular concern to me. My voice isn’t being heard," Kolieboi said. "What do we do?"
Kolieboi said that the four years of alienation he experienced from organizations for gay students brought his friends as close together as family.
“There is no one common experience, really, and that is what we love about (Queer People of Color),” Kolieboi said. “We have had shared experiences of not feeling welcome in queer spaces.”
They chose the name Queer People of Color to represent unity and activism for their fight for inclusion. “Queer is coming back as an activist movement,” Price said.
Even though he has formed a distinct group, Kolieboi said he still considers himself a member of the LGBT community.
“Yeah, of course, definitely, I consider myself queer," Kolieboi said. "I feel like I can never divorce myself of the two."