COVINGTON, Ky. — Holy Cross High School's graduating valedictorian and student council president learned hours before Friday night's graduation that they would not be allowed to deliver their planned — and, they thought, pre-approved — speeches at the ceremony.
They found a pair of megaphones and delivered them outside.
"The young people will win," valedictorian Christian Bales said, "because we're finished being complacent."
The 18-year-old from Cold Spring, Kentucky had hoped to celebrate the rising tide of American youth advocacy across the political spectrum, mentioning both the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who have campaigned for reformed gun laws and his own classmates who had attended the March for Life in January, and encourage his classmates to continue striving to make their communities better.
"We are dynamic, we are intelligent, we have a voice, and we're capable of using it in all communities," he said in his speech. "We must take what we've learned in this community and apply it to the world we are about to encounter."
Bales' mother, Gillian Marksberry, said Bales and student council president Katherine Frantz had believed their speeches were approved before an "out-of-the-blue" Friday morning call from Principal Mike Holtz to both their families. Holtz held an "emergency meeting" that ended in a declaration the diocese did not feel the two speeches were appropriate for the ceremony, Marksberry said.
Holtz related to her that the diocese characterized them as "aggressive, angry, confrontational" and too personal for the graduation stage.
"I can send you a copy of my speech," Bales wrote in a Twitter message. "It's anything but those things. … The irony is that my speech has a lot to do with voices, but our voices are being stifled."
He added he believed he and Frantz had been treated with undue scrutiny because of their advocacy for issues of social justice. Bales is openly gay and has participated in youth activism surrounding issues such as the Jefferson Davis statue in the Kentucky Capitol building.
"The president is my best friend and we've been two huge advocates for social reform in our community, which has likely put us on the radar for the diocese," he said.
Marksberry described her family's experience — as anxiety-inducing and hectic as that of any family preparing for a graduation, plus the Friday morning bombshell — as "shocking" and "very, very emotional." Her daughter had attended and graduated from Holy Cross years earlier without incident, she said, and their family was a longtime part of the diocese. During all that time, the principal had never called her personally to discuss her children until the week of Bales' graduation.
The first call, she said, was about the dress code. Bales describes himself as "very gender-nonconforming," so Holtz reminded Marksberry that diocesan officials would expect him to wear slacks, formal shoes, a conservative hairstyle and no makeup.
That was uncomfortable — "You've never called me about my child, but you're calling someone else who doesn't know my child about my child?" she said — but Marksberry understood.
The next call was about Bales' speech. Initially, she said school and diocese officials claimed to be rejecting the two speeches because Frantz and Bales had failed to meet a deadline. When she told them the students had never been given a formal deadline, the speeches' content rose to the top of the concern list.
"School officials and representatives of the Diocese of Covington reserve the right to review and approve all student speeches to be presented in public at high school graduations," diocese spokesman Tim Fitzgerald said Friday night. "When the proposed speeches were received, they were found to contain elements that were political and inconsistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church."
He repeated that the students had failed to meet a deadline to turn their speeches in to faculty. Holy Cross principal Mike Holtz and district superintendent Michael Clines did not respond to requests for comment.
Bales and Frantz delivered their speeches outside, through megaphones, after the ceremony. Marksberry said the general staff of Holy Cross High School had been supportive of her son and found ways to "help him embrace himself," and she did not bear the district any ill will.
"We don't want to be vindictive, we don't want to be vengeful," she said. "That's not what this is about. He's earned the right to have a voice."
Bishop Roger Foys, who oversees the Diocese of Covington and who typically distributes awards at Catholic schools' graduations, did not attend the ceremony. His seat stood empty on the graduation stage.
Bales will attend the University of Louisville on a full-ride scholarship in the fall. He plans to major in biology and become a conservationist.
You can read his speech in a Google Doc here.