Meet Bryce Dershem, the 18-year-old valedictorian of Eastern Regional High School in New Jersey. While giving his graduation speech, his principal cut his mic after he referred to his queer identity. Undeterred, Dershem gave his uncensored speech to the crowd anyway.
The incident occurred during Eastern Regional High School’s commencement ceremony on June 17. Dershem, who identifies as gay, had an ongoing debate with the school principal, Robert Tull, over the content of his speech. Dershem had loaded his initial draft with references to his coming out as queer and his struggles with anorexia and mental health. Tull, however, forbade him to mention either. Finally, Tull gave Dershem an “approved” version of the speech, which scrubbed all references to sexuality and mental health. According to Dershem, Tull thought referring to either would alienate members of the audience.
“I felt like I was faced with this choice where I could either honor all the belief systems and virtues that I cultivated,” Dershem revealed, “or I could just follow the administration.”
With a bit of encouragement from his family, Dershem memorized the full speech and opted to give it on graduation day over Tull’s objections. Just one minute in, Dershem made reference to coming out, Tull pulled the plug.
“As it was happening, passion was surging through my veins that, yes, I need to give this speech,” told The Chicago Tribune, “because this is the exact kind of stigma that I want to fight against.”
Video of the graduation ceremony shows Tull pulling cords out of the sound system to silence Dershem. He then walked to the podium, took the mic and Dershem’s notes, and pointed to the approved speech on the podium. When the sound returned, a terrified Dershem opted to continue his speech from memory.
“I tried my very best to give the speech from memory, and I was just a mess throughout the whole speech and I was just so vulnerable,” he added.
When he finished, the audience gave Dershem a standing ovation. One woman in the crowd approached him in tears to thank him for his honesty.
“She told me her son hadn’t survived the pandemic due to mental health struggles and she started to cry,” Dershem recalled. “I thought, ‘This was the one person I made feel less alone,’ and I knew I did the right thing.”
It would appear Dershem is not alone in that sentiment, either. In the aftermath of the censorship debacle, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy issued a statement commending Dershem for “speaking truth to power, and for your resilience and courage.” Video of the entire speech posted by Dershem’s father has also nabbed more than 147,000 views on YouTube.
At the time of this writing, neither Principal Robert Tull nor administrators for Eastern Regional High School have commented further on the incident.