A school principal allegedly tried to “censor” a queer student’s moving valedictorian speech – but it backfired spectacularly.
Bryce Dershem was sharing his turbulent experience of coming out at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, New Jersey, when his microphone was muted.
Wearing a Pride flag draped around his graduation robes, Dershem congratulated his classmates for successfully making their way through school before speaking about his own journey.
“For so long, I believed graduation was simply something that happened. I didn’t realise how wrong I was until it almost didn’t happen for me,” Dershem said.
“We brand high school as four years of self discovery, but few of us even know where to begin. After I came out as queer [in] freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to for support.”
At that point, his microphone was switched off. Video footage of the incident shows the school principal walking up to the podium, taking his microphone and the sheet of paper his speech was written on.
“Dr Tull came up to the stage he grabbed the paper I brought and crumpled it in front of me,” Dershem told NBC Philadelphia.
“He pointed to the speech he had written for me, effectively, and told me I was to say that and nothing else.”
A new microphone was supplied, but Dershem didn’t read the approved speech – he had memorised his own words in a spectacular rebuke to his school.
School allegedly accused queer student Bryce Dershem of turning his speech into a ‘therapy session’
“As I was saying,” he continued to laughter from his fellow students, who chanted “let him speak” while his microphone was being replaced.
Dershem went on to recite his own empowering speech from memory, touching on issues of self-acceptance, discovery and equality.
Robert Cloutier, Eastern Camden County Regional School District superintendent, denied that the school censored Dershem’s speech in a statement released to NBC Philadelphia.
“Every year, all students 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,” Cloutier said.
But Dershem claimed he was forced to take out any mention of his sexuality and his mental health issues by school administrators ahead of graduation day.
He said he was even told that graduation day was not “his therapy session”.
“I did feel censored,” the student said. “I felt as though they were trying to regulate the message I was going to say and take away the parts of my identity that I’m really proud of.”
Dershem also suggested that the school deliberately made the interruption to his speech look like a technical issue, but he said no similar incidents occurred for other speakers on the day.
Despite this, Dershem insisted that the incident was simply a speed bump on his mission to inspire others to be themselves.