A New Jersey high school valedictorian said that his microphone was cut off after declining to remove mentions of his sexuality and mental health challenges in his speech.
Last Thursday, Bryce Dershem graduated from Eastern Regional High School located in Vorhees, New Jersey, as first reported in NBC10 Philadelphia.
In less than a minute, within his moving speech, he shed light on his experiences with his LGBTQ+ identity, mental illness and eating disorders.
“After I came out as queer in freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to,” Dershem said in his speech.
As he tried to continue, the audio went out, as seen in a video of the speech. The principal, Dr Robert Tull, approached him and took some papers from him.
“The principal, Dr. Tull, he came up to the stage, and he grabbed the paper that I had brought and crumbled it in front of me in his hand And then pointed to the speech he had written for me, effectively, and told me I was to say that and nothing else,” Dershem told the outlet.
After countless cheers to continue his speech and receiving a replacement microphone from another man, Dershem picked it up from memory, delivering his message earnestly.
Dershem claimed that, in the process of creating his speech, any mention of mental health and queerness was removed, and he was apparently told that the ceremony was not his “therapy session.”
He had studied prior speeches from valedictorians in which the students voiced their identities based on being the child of immigrants, the clubs they were a part of and their time in the school’s marching band.
When asked by NBC10 reporter Cydney Long if he felt censored, he admitted that he did.
“I felt as though they were really trying to regulate the message that I have to say,” Dershem said.
In a statement to indy100, Robert Coutlier, the Eastern Regional High School Superintendent, said: “No student speaker was asked to remove their personal identity from any speech before or during graduation or had their speech stopped for sharing their personal identity”. He added that “student speeches are coordinated with the principal.”
“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,” Coutlier continued.
He also noted that the school district “is committed to the diversity and inclusion initiatives of the NJDOE with ongoing updates to the curriculum aligned to new NJDOE guidance.”
Dershem’s speech, which is uploaded to YouTube, was posted by his father, which received so much support from onlookers.
“This is an amazing speech by an amazing young man. He has taught us a lesson that usually takes many more years to realize; believing in yourself and loving yourself is the best way to survive. Thank you for sharing this,” someone wrote.
“Beautiful humanity exemplified. Great job! Young people: do not be silenced,” someone else wrote.
Dershem received a standing ovation, saying, “It meant the world to me.”