The morning of her son’s high school graduation, Gillian Marksberry received an unexpected phone call from his school: He would no longer be allowed to deliver his valedictorian speech at the ceremony.
The principal of Holy Cross High School in Covington, Kentucky, told Marksberry on Friday that her son, Christian Bales, and salutatorian Katherine Frantz had failed to turn in their speeches in time for review.
But Bales and Frantz told CNN they turned their speeches in by the date their teachers requested, and the speeches had already been read and approved by school faculty earlier in the week. Neither student was informed of a deadline for diocese review, they said.
“We decided to meet at the school and ask for a face-to-face meeting with the principal and superintendent if possible,” Marksberry explained. “During that meeting, (the reason) changed.”
Looking for answers
As the two families met separately with Principal Mike Holtz, he informed them that because Holy Cross is a Catholic school, the Diocese of Covington has final say over graduation speeches – and they were rejecting Bales’ and Frantz’s due to their content.
“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,” the Diocese Director of Communications, Tim Fitzgerald, said in a statement to CNN affiliate WLWT.
“All speeches must be submitted in a timely manner. The student speeches for the Holy Cross High School graduation were not submitted for review before the deadline. When the proposed speeches were received, they were found to contain elements that were political and inconsistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church.”
Neither Holy Cross High School nor the Diocese of Covington responded to CNN’s multiple requests for comment.
The reasoning given for the decision shocked the two students.
Frantz told CNN that her speech was called “too personal” for naming specific people in their graduating class. Bales’ speech centered on the power of youth activism and highlighted the efforts of Parkland survivors as well as anti-abortion advocates at his school.
“I understand they said it was political, but not political to the point where it was advocating for one side of the spectrum,” he told CNN.
The 18-year-old, who has been in Catholic school his whole life, also felt confused as to how his speech negated the teachings of the church.
“I talked about how faith can be a powerful and leading factor in our fight for social justice,” he said.
Finding an alternative
For Marksberry, the decision to exclude her son from speaking at the ceremony stirred an uncomfortable feeling. It was the second time that week the principal expressed concern about Bales and graduation.
On Monday, his mother said the principal called to let her know he had consulted with the diocese about how Bales should dress for the ceremony.
Bales is openly gay and presents as gender nonconforming. Marksberry said the principal wanted to make sure he knew to follow the dress code for boys – slacks, dress shoes and a dress shirt; no jewelry or makeup.
Marksberry assured them Bales would follow the rules and thought nothing of it. But the rejection of Bales’ speech led her to believe the two calls were related, and she did not want these concerns to prevent her son or Frantz from being recognized for their academic achievements.
After their respective meetings with the principal, both families brainstormed ways to make sure the two students could still deliver the speeches they had worked so hard on.
It was then that they came up with the final solution: The grads would deliver them outside, after graduation, through a megaphone.
“We are the young people,” Bales can be heard saying in the video of his speech, “and we will continue to win.”
’There will be more students like me’
He concluded to cheers and applause from his teachers and classmates. About 80 to 100 people attended the speech, Marksberry said.
Frantz told CNN their class has about 84 students.
Despite not being able to speak as planned, Bales says he does not hold any ill will towards Holy Cross or the diocese. Instead, he hopes his situation will serve as an example for the school moving forward.
“There will be more students like me,” he said. “There will be more gender nonconforming students, queer students, trans students. That’s not going to stop. I hope we can all utilize this as a learning experience to create a more harmonious experience for students going through the diocese in the school.”
Marksberry agrees with her son. Overall, she says she’s just proud to know he still found a way to be heard.
“The irony of it all is the diocese made this decision with the intention of taking away their voice, and as a result, it has made his voice that much louder,” she said.