The High School Valedictory Address You Weren’t Supposed to Hear
Evan Young was the valedictorian of this year’s graduating class at Twin Peaks Charter Academy High School, in Longmont, Colo. On May 16, at his graduation ceremony, Evan planned to give his valedictory address. Earlier in the week, he submitted the text of his speech to the principal, as required. Just before the ceremony, Principal B.J. Buchmann told Evan he was not allowed to give his speech. Evan was shocked. He had been practicing for days. He had planned to come out as gay in the speech for the first time, to his own family, to his classmates and to the whole school community.
But Principal B.J. Buchmann would never give him the chance. He called Evan’s father after reading the draft and told him that Evan was gay. Evan told me on the “Democracy Now!” news hour: “If there’s anything that upset me the most about this whole situation, it was probably that. And I guess what it showed is that the principal had very little respect or understanding for someone who is in my position.” A statement released by the charter school’s board of directors read in part: “The draft speech ... included references to personal matters of a sexual nature. None of these topics are ever appropriate for a speech at a graduation ceremony.”
Evan eventually got to give his speech—two weeks later. A local LGBT advocacy organization, Out Boulder, had gotten involved and tried—and failed—to convince the school to allow Evan to give the speech at another venue. So Out Boulder hosted a garden party in a backyard of a home in Boulder, where 250 people packed in to hear Evan finally give his address. Among those present was Boulder/Longmont’s member of Congress, Rep. Jared Polis, who is himself gay, and was the first out gay parent in the U.S. Congress. Evan Young told me the following morning: “It was amazing. I was very nervous, actually ... but when I gave my speech, it seemed like everyone liked the whole thing, and it was just awesome.” He received a standing ovation. Polis presented Evan with special congressional recognition for outstanding and invaluable service to the community.
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What were those words that the principal deemed necessary to censor, and which so inspired the crowd at the Out Boulder event? His speech showed a mature sense of humor, peppered throughout with jokes, but was a deeper, and deeply personal, call for tolerance and understanding.
“On a more serious note, there is something I would like to reveal to you. You may have already suspected this, but I hope this does not change your opinion of me: I am gay,” Evan said in his speech. “I’ve been attracted to men for as long as I can remember, and I’ve never had a girlfriend because I prefer members of my own sex.”
Evan continued: “And that’s my biggest secret of all: I’m gay. I understand this might be offensive to some people, but it’s who I am. And whether you’ve always suspected this, or this is a total shock to you, now you know. When I was writing this speech, I was endlessly debating with myself whether I should reveal this, on account of how divisive an issue this is and how gay people tend to be stereotyped, and I thought that, if I did, I should repeatedly apologize and beg you guys not to think any differently of me. But then I realized: I don’t have to. I shouldn’t have to. If there’s one thing I learned at this school, it’s that we can still be friends even if we profoundly disagree with each other.”
Congressman Jared Polis has written both the school board and the St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD), calling for an investigation into Evan’s silencing. Debbie Lammers, secretary of the SVVSD Board of Education, went to hear Evan at the Out Boulder event. She told me: “I am disappointed with what occurred, but I am glad that I had the opportunity to meet his parents and see Evan deliver his speech. It is unfortunate that this charter school has taken this step. It has put the family in a spotlight that they did not seek.”
Twin Peaks Charter Academy is just 75 miles, as the crow flies, from the site of the beating and torture of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was kidnapped in Laramie, Wyo., on Oct. 6, 1998. Shepard died of his injuries six days later, in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., even closer to Longmont. The murder of Matthew Shepard became a global news story, showing just how cruel and violent homophobia can be. His murder happened when Evan Young was just 2 years old. Evan’s message of tolerance is the only antidote to that kind of hatred. His classmates needed to hear it, his family needed to hear it, and now thanks to the outcry over his silencing, millions more have heard it as well.
© 2015 Amy Goodman