The queer valedictorian of a New Jersey high school said his microphone was cut off after he declined to remove all mentions of his sexuality and mental health challenges from his graduation speech.
Bryce Dershem graduated from Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, New Jersey, last Thursday, NBC10 Philadelphia reported. About 45 seconds into his address, he referred to his experience with sharing his LGBTQ identity.
“After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to,” he said.
At this point, his microphone was silenced, a video of the speech shows. The principal, Robert Tull, approached the lectern and removed the microphone and some papers.
“Dr. Tull came up to the stage, he grabbed the paper I brought and crumpled it in front of me,” Dershem told NBC10 Philadelphia. “He pointed to the speech he had written for me, effectively, and told me I was to say that and nothing else.”
After receiving a replacement microphone from another man, and a round of applause, Dershem picked up right where he left off from memory.
Dershem said that during the speech-writing process, all mentions of queerness and mental health were removed and he was told that graduation was not his “therapy session.” That prompted his decision to go off-book, he said.
As part of his research, he said he looked at previous valedictories in which students discussed their identities based on culture, group memberships and interests.
It felt as though the school was “trying to regulate the message I was going to say and take away the parts of my identity that I’m really proud of,” he said.
“Believe in yourself, Class of 2021. Each and every one of you is enough. Each and every one of you can and will change this world. Thank you and congratulations,” Dershem said at the end of his speech, to loud applause and cheers.
School administrators did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
In an email to NBC News, the school district’s superintendent said that “no student was asked to remove their personal identity from any speech before or during graduation” and that all speeches are pre-approved.
“Every year, all student speakers are assisted in shaping the speech, and all student speeches — which are agreed upon and approved in advance — are kept in the binder on the podium for the principal to conduct the graduation ceremony,” Robert Clautier, superintendent of the Eastern Camden County Regional School District, said in the statement.
The video of the speech, posted on YouTube by Dershem’s father, received an outpouring of support.
“So happy i got to see this in person, very brave and so intelligent. as a current eastern student i am angry at how Dr. Tull handled it. with all of the resources with clubs and such being inclusive i don’t know why he would cut the mic,” one commenter wrote.
“Wonderful speech by a brave young man. As a parent of an Eastern student, I was horrified by his mic being cut off,” said another.
Dershem said he received a standing ovation, and “it meant the world to me.”
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