Gay valedictorian: ‘It’s cool that my speech is spreading’ (w/video of speech)
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
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CARBONDALE — When Emily Bruell, one of three valedictorians at Roaring Fork High School, came out as gay as part of a speech about the labels we assign ourselves, she intended to address only her 56 classmates, their families and a few more of the 6,000 residents of Carbondale.
Instead, she spoke to the nation.
The original Post Independent story on Bruell has been viewed more than 15,000 times and shared by more than 3,400 Facebook users. In addition, the Associated Press did its own version of the story, which was posted on websites including the Huffington Post, New York Times, Miami Herald, Honolulu Star Advertiser and dozens more. Bruell was also interviewed by the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and Denver’s ABC 7, and has gotten widespread praise in social media, including from the mother of a Longmont valedictorian who was banned from speaking at his graduation.
It’s a lot of attention for a 17-year-old who, in the same speech last weekend, described herself as quiet, studious and much better suited to spelling bees than dance competitions.
“I was never expecting it would end up on the front page of the Post Independent, much less shared by the New York Times,” Bruell said Thursday. “I generally tend to shrink away from attention, but I’m trying not to do that here because I think it’s a really cool thing that my speech is spreading, and I really want to stand behind that, although I would be really happy if someone else wanted to champion it for a while.”
A lot of the attention has to do with timing and contrast. Valedictorian Evan Young was barred from speaking two weeks earlier at Longmont’s Twin Peaks Charter Academy graduation because he wouldn’t remove language about being gay.
Before Bruell spoke, the incident had gotten widespread publicity and prompted U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, to seek a probe of whether the school discriminated against Young.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that the school is conducting an internal investigation, but defended its decision.
School board president Kathy DeMatteo, writing to Polis, said officials do not “believe that a discussion of a student’s sexual orientation — no matter what that sexual orientation happens to be — is a proper matter for a commencement address. It beggars belief that you do.”
DeMatteo said Young was barred from delivering his speech not because he is gay but because of his “apparent intention to make a mockery” of the ceremony.
Roaring Fork High Principal Drew Adams took the opposite view, telling the PI, “I think Carbondale and Roaring Fork High School have build a supportive community for all students to feel safe. I don’t think that’s the case everywhere in America.”
Many gay teens struggle with isolation and face bullying.
According to speakforthem.org, a youth suicide prevention site, suicide is the leading cause of death among gay and lesbian youth nationally.
Young’s mother, Alise Curry, reached out to Bruell on the Post Independent’s Facebook.
“Emily, I am so impressed and proud. I am also proud of your community for their tolerance and support,” Curry wrote. “Our son Evan tried the same “stunt” and was shut down by his principal. Although the support we have gotten since has been amazing, graduation day, well, pretty much sucked. You look so joyful. I know you will do great things.”
Bruell responded in kind.
“Evan has been such a inspiration to me,” she wrote. “I am so sorry that his community was not ready for this courageous act, and wish the two of you the best of luck and a more open, accepting future!!”
Bruell said she has had a chance to chat with Young.
“It’s a strange thing to bond over being the other gay valedictorian who came out in Colorado,” she said. “I feel like we’ve kind of magnified each other’s stories. I have the feel-good aspect, and he has the need for change.”
She acknowledged the role social media played in both connecting her with Young and spreading her message.
“It’s nice way of making it personal but still getting it out there,” she said. “I think it’s a little ironic that I now have this label ‘gay valedictorian of Colorado’ – one of two – after I just kind of ducked out of the other labels that I’ve had, but I feel like the message of acceptance has mostly been kept.”
The message of her speech overall, she reiterated, is about judging a person as an individual, not assigning labels and stereotypes.
“It’s our nature to look around at people we don’t know and try to define them,” she said in her speech. “But every time we define a person so narrowly, we miss seeing the parts that don’t fit under that definition. We are all more than the sum total of how we are seen and what is expected of us. We have this capability, this opportunity, to create our own identity and live it.
Without the full context of the speech – of which a video is available online – some readers interpreted Bruell’s revelation as grandstanding.
“The biggest concern that I’ve heard is that this was not an appropriate occasion to make it about me and my sexuality,” Bruell said. “I definitely considered that, and I tried very hard to make my speech have a bigger message.”
All the negative feedback has been online, she added, while friends, family and community have remained supportive and positive.
“I think it’s getting out and it’s making people think, so I’m OK with the rest,” she said. “I hope it got to someone who needed that message.”
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Max Weintraub has been senior curator at the Aspen Art Museum since January 2019.