Emily Bruell — taking one for the team
Emily had no idea what to expect from her speech and surprise announcement.
“But I’m going to do it,” she told her family.
Her mother, Debbie, later said, “She did it to help other kids.”
By now you may have heard about Emily Bruell. As my younger son, who graduated alongside her, said with pride, “Emily’s a star.” Her tale has gone nationwide and even international.
A class valedictorian, Emily spoke from the heart about the labels applied or assumed during high school. Hers, which she had clung to in uncertainty in navigating the shoals of high school, was “SMART.”
She held the word up, printed in block letters on a white board.
“Knowing the power of these labels terrified me, especially because … [later] I realized something about myself, something more than what fit under smart girl,” she said.
Seated high on the bleachers, I at first missed the next words. The mic was too high for someone so petite, Emily is soft-spoken and the acoustics were dismal. Then Emily flipped over the board to show the word “GAY.” As I squinted, something happened that was as wonderful as a teen’s courage in front of 400 people.
I thought Kayla, a senior in the front row who is fervent about social justice, jumped up first, but she thought it was Mr. H, a beloved science teacher. For his part, he thought “some other people were already standing.” In the next half-instant three more graduating girls leapt up. Behind them the other graduates clambered to their feet; and the wave encompassed the room, a full-house standing ovation. The community embraced our tiny prophet.
Emily continued, saying that no label adequately represents anyone. Meanwhile, my octogenarian mother and I, in the stands, turned and stared at each other. My only brother is gay.
For a long time it had to be a secret. I didn’t know for years; there had been girlfriends, wonderful ones. But as time passed, he found his essential self was stronger.
Hired on after college as a young staffer by Albert Gore, he feared harming the then-senator via bad press and an ill effect on his constituency. At office picnics or social functions, my brother made sure to have a smiling female on his arm.
He was in college and I in graduate school when he told me. At the time I only had two friends who were out of the closet. Eric Marcus, today an accomplished author, was one.
“Are you surprised?” Eric asked my friend Grace after a candid answer when she interviewed him for an assignment.
“Maybe a little disappointed,” Grace said, meaning by his unavailability, and they both laughed. Eric later wrote a Newsweek column about coming out, and how he was warned not to tell his grandmother: It would kill her. But the two were close, and he couldn’t hide something so important. “Oh, she cried plenty,” he wrote. But then she dried her eyes, read and learned more, and even attended some civic events.
My brother is a career diplomat, and for a time it was unclear whether his lifestyle and marriage nine years ago to my brother-in-law, Clayton, might affect his future. Yet thanks to profound social changes, he is now in his dream job, an ambassador.
For days I couldn’t speak about Emily’s speech or the groundswell response without choking up. Yet when at home I praised the teachers and principal for supporting her speech, my sons were calm, even insouciant. One said, “It was the only thing to do.”
A friend’s ninth-grade daughter said, “What’s the big deal?”
I am so glad these kids think that way. Not everyone does.
At graduation I looked around the room and wondered how many young people Emily’s candor had just helped. Gay teens are at risk for bullying and suicide. I could also assume that just about everyone in that room had a relative or friend who is gay. The more openness in the world, the less homophobia there will be, because few people can sustain it while looking in the eyes of another human being.
The more risk Emily took, the less for others. Even aside from that, the response in the auditorium when this quiet girl put her heart out there was wondrous.
“Femaelstrom” appears on the third Friday of each month. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor. Contact her at email@example.com.
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