When Chris Witherspoon was a student at Ohio University about 20 years ago, he was not out as gay.
“I felt like I already had a couple strikes against me,” Witherspoon, CEO and founder of the PopViewers app, said. “I was Black. I came from a family that didn't have the means to send me money to help me thrive. And the last thing I wanted was to be ostracized from the peers that I had because I was out and gay. It was a different world 20 years ago. We didn't have the strides that we've made (as a) society when it comes to the LGBTQ+ movement and acceptance.”
Now, April 24, Witherspoon will be delivering the keynote address at OU’s virtual Pride Graduation as his authentic self.
OU’s Pride Graduation is a celebration of LGBTQ+ graduates from all OU campuses and academic levels. It is hosted by the OU LGBT Center in collaboration with OU’s Student Senate and Alumni Association.
“This is really something that's for our entire community, and we're so grateful to the Bobcat family for just being so incredibly inclusive and incredibly kind and for really recognizing and honoring our LGBTQ+ students,” Jan Huebenthal, assistant director of the LGBT Center, said.
The event is free of charge and will be hosted virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. Participants can register online.
Although the online format makes the 2021 Pride Graduation ceremony different from other years, Huebenthal believes it will be “more accessible for family members who may be living far away who would like to tune in.”
Witherspoon will also be joining from afar, giving his speech from his home in New York City.
“I would love to be there in person and look at these young people in their faces and tell them how much they inspire me today,” Witherspoon said.
Witherspoon was invited to speak at the event by Caryn Bailey, assistant director of development and longtime friend of Witherspoon. She sees Witherspoon’s career success as inspiring and hopes that he can convey a moving message to attendees of the Pride Graduation ceremony.
During his speech, Witherspoon hopes to emphasize the importance of living authentically.
“I want to talk about my journey of embracing vulnerability, and through embracing vulnerability, being my authentic self,” Witherspoon said. “I think that in authenticity, in truth, is power. It's the most powerful thing we can do is show up to every moment of our lives, in our truth, in our authenticity. These young people are doing that, but I want to celebrate them for doing that and teach them to keep doing it.”
Student Senate LGBTQ+ Affairs Commissioner Molly Davis will also be giving a speech at the event. She helped facilitate the collaboration between Student Senate and the LGBT Center for the event.
Davis believes that Pride Graduation is important to recognize LGBTQ+ graduates’ and advocates’ impact on OU.
“It's important to honor them and never forget their roots of where they came from because the impact they left on this campus is something they're going to leave no matter where they go next,” Davis said. “And I think that that's something that should not go unnoticed.”