The moment I became aware that giving a speech at this graduation was a possibility in my quickly approaching future, I started a note pad on my phone to record any fleeting parables of wisdom that I would encounter until we would all walk across this stage tonight. Amidst my moments of eating black bean burgers, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, and finishing my College Algebra homework five minutes before (and sometimes after) the deadline, these are both the philosophical and practical epiphanies I have acquired to offer you all as we progress into the rest of our lives.
To each person of the class of 2016: define your own success. No one in life has the exact same aspirations as each of you or will make the impact on humanity that each of you will. No one has the right to define your success or self. Don’t judge your accomplishments or position in life by the merits of someone else’s. As Supermodel of the World RuPaul says, “When you become the image of your own imagination, it is the most powerful thing you could ever do.” Whatever contribution you feel that you should put forth into the world, it is best facilitated when you are hardworking and innovative in your efforts. Whether you are ensuring diplomatic relations with Russia, developing phthalate-free food packaging, running your own hardware store, or taking an elderly person’s blood pressure, do so wholeheartedly and unapologetically. Live your truth. Be the person you see yourself as, not the person others expect you to be. The moment I stopped seeking validation from others, began to be my honest self, and started pursuing the goals that I wanted in high school is the moment that I felt success. After all, I may not be number one (I’m looking at you Grant), but I still have the honor of speaking to you all tonight.
Stay open-minded and practice open dialogue. Communication is our most powerful tool as human beings− use it to make others’ lives better, to make the world better. Stand up for injustice and act in kindness. If you only have one interaction with a person and it is a negative one, that person is only going to know you based on that one negative experience. Always remember the legacy that you leave in the mind of each person to whom your words and actions reach every day.
Don’t be afraid to disrupt the status quo if it means doing what is right. James Meredith, the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi and one of my personal heroes, writes, “I am a black man living in Mississippi, and to be so means I am already dead.” By standing up to the racism of Governor Barnett and the State of Mississippi in 1962, Meredith could only progress civil rights from the experience being that the success and basic rights of black Americans was already limited. Virtually, he had nothing to lose. In the same light, if Marsha P. Johnson, transgender woman of color and LGBTQ activist, would not have helped facilitate the Stonewall Riot of 1969 and, consequently, the Gay Liberation Movement, I may not have the ability to stand before you today as a successful queer person. Queer being an umbrella term for those who defy social norms as related to gender identity and sexuality- not the derogatory term that was yelled at me on the playground in elementary school.
To all LGBTQ youth on elementary school playgrounds, on this field, across the nation, and around the world. I urge you to defy normal. Don’t strive to meet or exceed other’s expectations− transcend them. Despite what some may say, your life is valid, and you are capable of success.
Revolutions don’t happen on their own. Each of us is society. Each of us is government. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” As cliché as it is, we must each be the change we want to see in the world. Simply having an opinion about what is wrong in the world won’t make it better; progress requires action. Practice action. Creating the world you want to see isn’t as easy as copying someone else’s homework the morning of the day it’s due. Write your politicians, participate in protests, read or watch the news, vote. It is our duty to shape the world that we, and those who will one day walk across this stage as we do tonight, live in. I hope you make that world one which celebrates each diverse identity and perspective on life.
As we all embark on our separate routes of success, obstacles will indefinitely present themselves to us. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Many times as teenagers, we have tried to prove our independence and viewed assistance from others as weakness, but as we begin a new dynamic phase of life, we have to trust others to help guide us through. In other words, even though you have a parking pass, it’s still okay to ride the bus somedays. Whether it be family, friends, or faith, make use of the resources in your life to better yourself so that you may better the world.
Sometimes that need for help may be crucial to your health. If you are experiencing depression, addiction, or any other mental or emotional strain, reach out to a mental health professional; most colleges offer these services for free. Mental disorders can be just as harmful as physical illnesses; we only have one body, one mind, and one life. Bypass the stigma associated with psychological disorders, and take time to care for yourself, so that you may continue to make the world more diverse.
Personally speaking, I could not be as successful as I am today without the love and support of my family, friends, and teachers.
Thank you to my dysfunctional family for somehow always helping me function at my best. I could not be as bold as I am today without your unconditional support and constant supply of groceries which I will totally miss in Boston.
Thank you to my friends for always keeping me humble on the days when I seem worse than our current choices for president. When the rest of my life is entirely composed of stress, you guys remind me that it is okay to have fun.
Thank you to Ms. Bailey, Mrs. Pidgeon, and Mrs. McKnight for creating wholesome citizens of the world. These women go above and beyond as teachers and mentors, giving their time to educate and more importantly, to listen. If I had the power to issue Ms. Bailey a therapist license, I would. Whether it be my writing or personal issues, she is always able to set me on the right path. Mrs. Pidgeon has been one of my loudest champions throughout my high school career, and I could not be where I am today with her support and generous donations to my four-foot-tall makeup case. She has assured me that I can be “revolutionary”. Mrs. McKnight has taught history in a way that is both honest and relevant. Through her class, I have not only been inspired to be an activist on a more substantial level, but I have also learned to appreciate the small joys in everyday life. These women transcend their roles as educators to provide real life skills and to celebrate diversity in their classrooms. They have changed their students so that their students may change the world.
Addressing you all as my classmates for one final time, I once again urge you to work your hardest and live your truth, and when you feel like you can’t give any more, remember these words from my favorite drag queen Miss Alyssa Edwards, “Get a grip, get a life, and get over it.”
Love yourself and love others. Thank you.