N.J. Valedictorian Speaking About LGBTQ+ Identity Cut Off During Graduation Speech: 'Censored'
"After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn't know who to turn to," Bryce Dershem said before his microphone got cut off
A New Jersey high school valedictorian is speaking out after he says he was "censored" while delivering a speech at graduation about his LGBTQ+ identity.
Bryce Dershem was speaking to the crowd at Eastern Regional High School's graduation in Voorhees on June 17 when the incident occurred, according to NBC affiliate WCAU.
As shown in a video that was posted on YouTube, Dershem was speaking about his sexuality and mental health struggles before his microphone got cut.
"After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn't know who to turn to," Dershem said in the clip.
As the teen spoke, the high school's principal, Dr. Robert M. Tull Jr., was seen approaching the backside of the podium and bending down towards the electrical wires.
Dershem's microphone went quiet seconds after, and as shown in the video, the written copy of his speech was later taken away by Tull.
Though Dershem claimed the interruption was made to appear like a technical issue, he told WCAU that after he was approached by Tull, it became clear that the issue was really his speech.
"Dr. Tull came up to the stage he grabbed the paper I brought and crumpled it in front of me," Dershem recalled to the outlet. "He pointed to the speech he had written for me, effectively, and told me I was to say that and nothing else."
But Dershem refused to comply, and after he was given another microphone, the valedictorian picked up where he left off — entirely from memory.
"As I was saying," he told the audience, who started applauding and cheering.
From there, Dershem discussed his past struggles, which included anorexia and suicidal thoughts — the former of which he said kept him in a treatment center for six months.
"Before we can even start down this road of self-discovery, we've got to make sure we are doing okay and can handle the drive, especially when it comes to mental health," he told the crowd. "You are not alone in your fight... you never have to suffer alone in silence. If you have struggled or will struggle, I believe you and I hope you will believe others too."
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Following his speech, Dershem told WCAU that cutting his microphone felt like an attack on his sexuality and his previous mental health struggles.
He defended his argument by claiming the administrators made him remove all mentions of his queerness and treatment stay during the speech editing process and allegedly told him graduation was not "his therapy session," WCAU reported.
"I did feel censored," the teen explained to the outlet, adding that he was also asked to remove a rainbow Pride flag that he wore over his graduation gown. (He didn't comply.)
"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 continued.
In a statement of his own, Robert Cloutier, the superintendent of Eastern Camden County Regional School District, denied Dershem's allegations.
Cloutier explained in an email to WCAU that graduation speeches are expected to include references to the speaker's educational experiences and an inclusive message about the future of all students.
"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," Cloutier wrote, per WCAU.
Cloutier also noted to the outlet that the district has made efforts to support the social and emotional wellness of students, parents, and staff during the pandemic and will continue to do so in the 2021-2022 school year.
In an additional statement to NBC News, Cloutier wrote, "No student was asked to remove their personal identity from any speech before or during graduation."
Cloutier did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.
Though Dershem's speech didn't go exactly as planned, the teen told WCAU that he was overwhelmed by the support from his classmates, family and boyfriend.
He also hopes the incident will inspire others to embrace their individualities and encourage them to never give up, the outlet reported.
"Believe in yourself, class of 2021," Dershem said at the end of his speech. "Each and every one of you is enough. Each and every one of you can, and will, change this world."
If you or someone you know is battling an eating disorder, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237 or go to NationalEatingDisorders.org.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.