Jah Akande, ’13, has taken the fight for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) citizens to the Virginia General Assembly. He also has watched University of Richmond evolve regarding LGBTQ issues.

Akande came out as a lesbian at age 13, served as president of his high school’s Gay Straight Alliance, and became active in political advocacy.

“I learned about LGBTQ discrimination in Virginia and how to combat it,” Akande said of his high school experience. “Equality Virginia trained me how to lobby legislators. I’ve done it every year since.”

A political science major, Akande has continued promoting LGBTQ rights during his college years. The summer after his first year, he worked on the Virginia Non-Discrimination Act as a legislative policy intern with Equality Virginia.

As he gained a fuller understanding of the legislative process, Akande simultaneously clarified his gender identity. He reached a turning point during his study-abroad semester in London in fall 2011.

“I dressed like a male from my first day on the UR campus,” Akande said, “but in a brand new environment [London], I could make my own identity. I came out as transgender and corrected people who referred to me as she.”

The Bonner Center for Civic Engagement awarded Akande a Burhans Civic Fellowship to intern in the office of his state delegate, Joseph Morrissey, D-Henrico, Virginia General Assembly House of Delegates.

“Joe is an ally of the LGBTQ community,” Akande said. “During my internship, I studied the same legislation I had been working on since I was 15 years old, but this time from a legislator’s view point.

“Joe supported me when I spoke about the Virginia Non-Discrimination Act in front of the Senate’s and House’s general laws committees. It passed in the Senate committee but failed in the House committee and couldn’t go to the House for a vote.”

Akande hopes one day to practice criminal law and run for political office like his mentor, Morrissey. However, immediately following graduation, Akande will join his girlfriend in London, where he will work with Teach First as a teacher in a low-income neighborhood. 

If Akande and his girlfriend marry in England, they will face challenges if they decide to resettle in the United States. The United States still regards Akande as female and doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages.

“Until same-sex marriage is recognized on a federal level,” Akande said, “I can’t petition for my partner to come to the United States on a permanent basis.” 

Although the slow pace of change in federal and state law frustrates Akande, he is excited about changes on the UR campus. 

“During my sophomore year, gender identity was made a part of UR’s non-discrimination policy for employees,” Akande said. 

The hiring of Ted Lewis in July 2012 as the first associate director of LGBTQ campus life marked another milestone for the University. As did the introduction of Q-Community, UR’s first LGBTQ-ally living-learning community. 

“The strong presence of the LGBTQ corner in the office of Common Ground and Ted’s leadership make LGBTQ students feel that there’s a place on campus for them,” Akande said.

In May Akande will become the first transgender student to have matriculated at Westhampton College, the women’s college, and graduated from Richmond College, the men’s college. 

He also will become the first openly transgender student to graduate from WILL, the University’s four-year program that explores the influence of gender and other identities.

Last night Akande celebrated recent LGBTQ advances in the United States and on the UR campus when he gave the keynote speech at the inaugural Lavender Graduation, a ceremony honoring graduating LGBTQ students and allies. 

He closed his speech: “Live your lives authentically. If we stand for what is right, if we stand with integrity, if we stand for justice, who wouldn’t want to be allied with us?”

Photo: Jah Akande, left, Delegate Joseph Morrissey, right