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Young: A valedictory about pride—and prejudice

By John Young

The valedictorian left the podium empty-handed, except for his hold on classmates’ hearts.

A Pride flag is flown at the Travis County Administration Building on June 29. [RICARDO BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

The principal took away his microphone and his prepared remarks, but when grads shouted, “Let him speak,” another mic was produced and, by memory, he said all he intended.

“For so long I tried to bend and break and shrink to society’s expectations,” Bryce Dershem said at a moment when he was told to do exactly that.

But he went on with words to inspire many, not just the audience at Eastern Regional High School in New Jersey, but millions online. His dad shared it on YouTube.

The principal had forbidden Bryce to say he is gay. Thank goodness he persisted.

He talked about getting treatment for anorexia. He talked about having considered suicide. His voice faltered only once.

But there he was, a pride flag draped over his shoulders: “I am a fighter, and today I am a survivor.”

He’s not the only one. Consider Gavin Grimm, a transgender individual who sued when his school in Virginia prevented him from using the boys’ room.

A four-year battle ended in victory for Grimm and others like him when the Supreme Court refused to review a lower court ruling allowing transgender individuals to use the facilities with which they identify.

How sad that a high schooler needs to wage such a battle for the rest of us. Reminds us of other young people who have walked through school entrances under duress along history’s arc.

The good news is that this is just one of many victories for LGBTQ rights, regardless of what oppressively stone-age edicts emanate from red-state legislatures.

The Supreme Court – yeah, that Supreme Court – ruled in June that federal civil rights law protects gay, lesbian and transgender workers.

Meanwhile the U.S. Senate – yeah, that Senate – has confirmed Joe Biden’s choice of Rachel Levine, a pediatrician, as assistant U.S. secretary of health, making her the first openly transgender individual so confirmed.

Our nation has its first openly gay Cabinet member in Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. Colorado’s Gov. Jared Polis is openly gay. The general response from Coloradans is, “Who cares?”

Ah, but some Americans care.

Robert Jeffress, Donald Trump’s favorite holy man, would no doubt denounce Colorado for having abided in the devil’s doings.

Jeffress recently lashed out at devoutly Baptist Baylor University as full of “infidels” for even considering approving a new LGBTQ group.

The offending statement in a Baylor press release said that it hasn’t changed any principles while it “continues to place a priority on the care of all students.”

Now, wait just a minute, said Southern Baptist Convention seminary president Art Mohler. He accused Baylor of “institutional capitulation disguised as care.”

Tut tut. Imagine a Christian university showing it cares about all students.

At this point, let us reflect on the reaction young Bryce Dershem got from his classmates. They loved him. They embraced him and what he had to say.

Sounds almost biblical.

The sirens of the right – Republican leaders, religious leaders – are positively deaf to what young Americans have to say about LGBTQ rights. Most young Americans are fully in support. 

They don’t think of being gay as a sin. They think of it as part of the person, like the angular nose on my face.

Most young Americans think, as do I, that the real sinners are the political and religious leaders who marginalize people for no reason other than basic prejudice.

It’s the kind of prejudice that at one time made a crime of same-sex intimacy. The leaders behind those policies were pathetic and wrong. As with those who placed all their chips on Jim Crow, history will look at them as losers.

Bryce Dershem, however, is a star.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado.