Less than a minute after Bryce Dershem’s farewell speech on June 17, the microphone went off. He had just told the audience at his New Jersey high school graduation ceremony that he had turned out to be gay in his freshman year.
When he made the revelation, Principal Robert M. Tull went to the back of the stage and appeared to unplug some cords, as a video of the ceremony shows.
Suddenly, Mr. Dershem, 18, was silenced. Mr. Tull went up on stage and took the microphone from its stand.
When the manager took the microphone, he also listened to Mr. Dershem’s prepared remarks.
Mr Tull pointed to another copy of the podium speech that made no reference to sexuality or mental health.
A replacement microphone was brought to Mr Dershem, but by that time, he said in an interview on Saturday, he was frozen. Then his classmates at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees Township, New Jersey encouraged him to continue his speech.
“As this was happening, passion was rising in my veins and, yes, I have to make this speech,” he said, “because that’s exactly the type of stigma I want to fight against”.
Mr. Dershem knew every word of his own version of the speech, as he had been working on his words for a month.
“I did my best to deliver the speech from memory, and I was just a mess the entire speech and I was so vulnerable,” he said.
He spoke about everything he had been through before stepping onto the graduation stage.
“Starting in September of senior year, I spent six months in treatment for anorexia,” he said in the speech. “For so long I have tried to bend, break and shrink to the expectations of society.”
Mr Dershem was keen to stress to the students that their identity is valid, he said.
“From a formerly suicidal queer, formerly anorexic,” he said, he wanted students to know that one person could save another person’s life.
When he arrived at the ceremony, Mr. Dershem wore a pride flag on his robe. A school administrator wanted him to remove it, but he refused. During the speech, Mr. Dershem suspected that the principal was trying to pretend that there were technical difficulties.
Mr. Tull had read Mr. Dershem’s speech before the ceremony and wanted Mr. Dershem to deliver the version that the school administration had approved.
The director and Mr Dershem had been discussing the content of the speech for weeks, Mr Dershem said. The student sent out the top three drafts, he said, because Mr. Tull said his speech was not broad enough for his 500 senior colleagues.
Mr Tull and the East Camden County Regional School District did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday. The high school is located in Voorhees, a township of about 30,000 people, about 20 miles from Philadelphia.
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 references to “their personal identity” from their speeches.
The New York Times reviewed the high school live video of the ceremony. Mr Dershem’s father reposted an excerpt from his son’s speech on YouTube.
Just days before the ceremony, Mr Dershem said the director gave him an ultimatum that he could revise his speech, or he would not be allowed to speak at all. He changed his speech but the principal still didn’t like it, the student said.
“I felt like I was faced with this choice where I could either honor all the belief systems and virtues that I cultivated,” Mr. Dershem said, “or I could just follow the administration.”
Mr Dershem discussed the decision with his family and decided he was going to give the speech he had always wanted.
At the end of his speech, the audience gave him a standing ovation. A woman thanked him afterwards.
“She told me her son did not survive the pandemic due to mental health issues and she started crying,” he said. “I thought, he was the only person I made feel less lonely. And I knew I had done the right thing.
Michael Dershem, the student’s father, said he couldn’t believe the principal would turn off his son’s microphone, but said he couldn’t be prouder of his son for regaining his composure and carry on.
“I have probably watched the speech somehow many times since,” said Michael Dershem, 56. “I’m a pretty tough guy, but, you know, I break down every time I look at him.”
Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey said the Twitter Saturday that he was proud of Mr. Dershem for “having spoken the truth in power, and for your resilience and courage”.
Mr. Dershem is preparing to move to Massachusetts in the fall. He will be a student at Tufts University, where he plans to promote the rights of women and LGBTQ people.
“I am so happy to know that people are watching this speech,” he said. “I hope they believe more in themselves and feel less alone in their struggle.”