Carbondale valedictorian comes out in graduation speech (video)
CARBONDALE, Colo. — Emily Bruell is far from the first gay student, openly or otherwise, to attend Roaring Fork High School. But she is the first to come out publicly in her valedictorian speech to a standing ovation.
Bruell, 17, a straight A student bound for Bates College in Maine, seized the opportunity Saturday to make a point about labels, punctuating it with a piece of personal information known only to her family, a handful of friends and a couple of faculty members.
The speech was approved by the school’s administration, a stark contrast to Twin Peaks Charter Academy High in Longmont, where valedictorian Evan Young was denied the chance to make a similar announcement.
Bruell made her point before sharing her secret, and managed to steal the show without stealing her fellow graduates’ thunder.
“We often hear about high school as a blank page, a time you can start over,” she said. “But I came to this school with a label I’d brought from middle school, a sort of ‘brand name,’ if you will. Emily Bruell. It’s kind of a quiet brand, the kind of brand who takes a ton of AP classes, and who wins spelling bees, not dance competitions. The selling point of the brand is that it’s smart, although users may experience side effects such as over quietness, spending too much time stressing over tests and grades, and behavior frequently classified as nerdlike.”
She proffered the word “SMART” in big, bold letters before her classmates, and recounted how she drew the label around herself until she almost couldn’t see it. It took spending the spring of her junior year at Chewonki Semester School in Maine to help her see past it.
“Knowing the power of these labels terrified me, especially because in my time away from Roaring Fork I realized something about myself, something more than what fit under ‘smart girl.’ I realized that I am gay,” she said. “And I was terrified of the stigma that that label held. And the easiest thing to do when you are scared of something is to ignore it, to just keep on acting the way you did before you got scared. So I continued being brand ‘smart girl.’ I continued working to fill that identity, and to make sure that nothing contrary to it slipped out.
“But … now it’s out. In fact, we can make it more official.”
As Bruell flipped over her sign to reveal the word “GAY,” the assembly came to its feet. It took a moment for the applause to die down and permit her to continue.
“The label of ‘gay girl’ is irrevocably revealed. And standing here, still in one piece, I’m realizing that while the label is accurate, it’s also not everything,” she said. “I’m not just gay. I’m not just smart. No one is. No label is big enough to hold an entire person. But we still keep trying.”
She touched on other labels throw around in high school — class clown, overachiever, jock, druggie, prep, slacker — and invited her classmates to shed those labels as they move into adulthood.
“You can make up for this freedom, of course, by making more labels, labels of who is worth your time based on class, race, gender, IQ — you can make your own labels, if you want. It’ll be easy to do, and there will always be people who follow the labels you make,” she observed. “But you can also choose to give up these labels, to judge a person simply as a human.”
It’s a point Bruell doesn’t think she could have made without full disclosure.
“I knew that I had to write a speech, and I wanted it to be about judgment and labels. I didn’t think I could do that without being honest about this part of me,” she said in an interview Monday. “I felt it was really important to leave the high school not hiding anything.”
It was a difficult decision, because her first instinct upon realizing her orientation was to keep it a secret.
“I came back and put that aside, except you can’t really put a part of it aside,” she explained. “I started to feel a disconnect.”
Eventually, she approached her English teacher, Krystal Wu, one of the Gay Straight Alliance sponsors at the school.
“She helped me realize that it was an important part of my identity, and I wanted to share it,” Bruell said. “I decided not to talk about it, and then kind of without noticing I decided to.”
Although she had a strong desire to craft the speech on her own and didn’t even show it to her parents beforehand, Bruell agreed to run it by Principal Drew Adams.
“Her speech was perfect,” said Adams. “To me, it was the right thing to do.”
He also had faith in the school and the town to accept the announcement.
“I didn’t anticipate a standing ovation, but I did anticipate applause,” he said. “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.”
Adams was well aware of Rutgers University-bound Young’s speech being nixed in Longmont — and criticism that Principal BJ Buchmann outed Young to his parents.
“I think it was a complete mistake for that administration to prevent that student from making his comments,” he said.
“I think it’s so sad that he reached that point, and his community wasn’t ready for him,” she said. “I feel incredibly lucky with the response I got. I would never have expected that. I was so moved and so touched by that gesture of acceptance.”
She wasn’t sure she would get anything of the sort.
“I was really, really excited until 5 o’clock the morning of my speech, which is when I woke up and was kind of panicking,” she recalled. “It really hit me that I was going to make this private part of myself public.”
Bruell pointed out that many labels are easy to spot and don’t require an announcement to embrace them, but it’s a double-edged sword.
“At least I can hide my label sometimes. A lot of people can’t,” she said.
“Any time we put a label, we sort of write a story about a person, and those can be really inaccurate and really hurtful.”
She chose a deliberately broad label in an effort to make the message about more than just herself.
“It’s important to talk about this,” she said. “One of my main motivations for making this was to put a face to the label.
“I have not had any cause to regret it,” she added. “I feel like coming out has made me so much more comfortable with that aspect of myself. I realized I really don’t care what people who don’t get it think.”
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