'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,' the teen said.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on June 28, 2021. It has since been updated.
Bryce Dershem was barely a minute into his valedictorian speech at his New Jersey high school graduation ceremony on June 17, 2021, when his microphone was cut off. He had just told the audience how he'd felt after coming out as queer in his freshman year. "After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn't know who to turn to," the 18-year-old said just as the principal, Robert M Tull, walked to the back of the stage and appeared to unplug some cords. A video of the ceremony then shows Tull get on stage, remove the microphone from its stand, and walk away with a paper copy of Dershem's speech.
To Bryce Dershem – I'm so proud of you for speaking truth to power, and for your resilience and courage.— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) June 26, 2021
To all of our LGBTQIA+ youth – you belong, you are loved, and we will continue to fight alongside you for equality, inclusion, and respect.https://t.co/0QzGjbIJqj
"The principal, Dr. Tull, came up to the stage and he grabbed the paper that I brought and crumpled it in front of me in his hand," the teen told NBC10 Philadelphia. "And then he pointed to the speech he had written for me, effectively, and told me I was to say that and nothing else." Speaking to The Washington Post, Dershem recalled the thoughts racing through his head at the moment. "I don't know why just a reference to who I was warranted being cut off," he said. "I was on the verge of tears; I didn't know what to do."
Shortly after the principal tried to force Bryce Dershem to read pre-approved remarks, another figure handed him a replacement microphone.— NBC News (@NBCNews) June 25, 2021
Instead of picking up from the school approved speech, Dershem picked up from where he left off — from memory. https://t.co/s8qHT8FZlh
Although a replacement microphone was immediately brought to Dershem, he revealed in an interview with The New York Times that he was momentarily frozen to the spot. Then, he heard his classmates at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees Township, N.J., cheering for him to continue his speech. "As it was happening, passion was surging through my veins that, yes, I need to give this speech," he said, "because this is the exact kind of stigma that I want to fight against." And so Dershem picked up right where he left off; calmly and elegantly reciting the speech he'd worked on for a month from memory.
Bryce Dershem said his school principal "crumpled" his graduation speech and directed him to read an approved one. https://t.co/Y83y1PMLoP— HuffPost Queer Voices (@huffpostqueer) June 25, 2021
"As I was saying," Dershem started again, with the crowd cheering him on, "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 freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn't know who to turn to for support, for guidance, for a hug. Every day at school I outwardly smiled, while inwardly questioning how we were supposed to link the different facets of our identities. Brother, sister, queen, queer lover, human being. Even though my family my friends and so many amazing Eastern faculty believed in me, I needed to accept the unapologetic version of myself, for myself. We all do. But before we can even start down this road of self-discovery, we got to make sure we are doing okay and can handle the drive — especially when it comes to mental health."
Bryce Dershem is my hero! I’m tired of people trying to say our identities and experiences are somehow inappropriate. https://t.co/mYUUAaXkLu— Rebekah Bruesehoff (she/her) (@MightyRebekah) June 25, 2021
The teen went on to tell the audience about how the pandemic — which forced him to take remote classes until May — exacerbated his own mental health struggles. "Beginning September of senior year, I spent six months in treatment for anorexia. For so long, I tried to bend and break and shrink to society's expectations," he said in the speech. "You are not alone in your fight. With the belief of those around you, you never have to suffer in silence. If you have struggled or will struggle, I believe you. And I hope you will believe others, too. From a formerly suicidal, formerly anorexic queer—the list goes on for me and for all of us—believe me that one person's belief can save a life."
"Part of our identity, our year, our struggle is 2021. We're still here though. We adapted to something we never thought possible. You are fighters. You are survivors," Dershem told his classmates. "If I leave you with anything today, let it be belief. Believe one another. Believe in the reality of mental illness. Believe regardless of stereotypes and stigma. 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," the teen concluded. Dershem revealed that school administrators' efforts to "censor" his speech began in the week leading up to graduation when the principal asked him to rewrite the speech multiple times.
"They start saying things like, 'This speech is not my therapy session,'" he said. "I did feel censored. 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." However, Robert Cloutier — the superintendent of the Eastern Camden County Regional School District — told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the district had not asked any students to remove mentions of "their personal identity" from their speeches.
Dershem suspects the principal was trying to pretend his interruption was caused by technical difficulties. He said the school also had an issue with his graduation attire, asking him to remove the pride flag he'd draped over his graduation gown. He didn't comply. Dershem revealed that he was later approached by a teacher at his school who lost her son to suicide during the pandemic. "She hugged me and she said that her son had passed away due to suicide over quarantine and my speech had just meant so much to her, and she really wished he had gotten to hear it, too," he said. "I thought, 'This is the one person — this is the one person that I made feel less alone in that audience.' That was everything for me."