High school graduation is a big moment in a young person's life. Coming out is a big moment in a queer person's life. William Harless, a recent Venice High School (in Venice, Fla.) graduate, chose to combine both of those moments when he came out to his classmates and family by carrying a Pride flag across the graduation stage when his name was announced.
Harless told local TV station WWSB that he decided to come out during the ceremony because he wanted to be true to himself.
"Graduation is all about your achievements," he explained to the outlet. "And you can't really acknowledge your achievements if you're not acknowledging your true self."
The decision to come out was a long time coming for Harless, who said he had been thinking about when to do it as far back as seventh grade, while he was still living in West Virginia. But as graduation approached, Harless realized that was the right time to do it and that he's glad he did.
"It feels amazing, like a weight has been taken off my shoulders," he said. "I have really been able to stay true to myself because I no longer feel like I don't need to hide a part of myself. I feel genuinely free." Harless also shared that friends and family have been supportive of his coming-out.
Harless wasn't the only Florida high school grad to use the commencement stage to speak out about queerness this year in the wake of the state's passage of its "don't say gay" law. Zander Moricz, president of his graduating class at Pine View School in Osprey, Fla. -- and a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the state over "don't say gay" -- shared that he was being silenced by his school, whose principal called him into his office to discuss his upcoming graduation speech.
"[He] informed me that if my graduation speech referenced my activism or role as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, school administration had a signal to cut off my microphone, end my speech, and halt the ceremony," Moricz revealed.
"There was a lot of hate and a lot of fear surrounding the speech about what people were going to do if someone was going to react poorly because it was really present in the community -- that hatred and that fear -- and so I was worried and I knew that there was a potential to cut the mic," Moricz told Good Morning America on Monday.
Instead, Moricz's speech received a standing ovation from his classmates. But he didn't say "gay" -- he used the fact that he has curly hair as an analogy to his sexuality.
Harless cited Moricz as someone who inspired him to come out. "With all the issues and topics coming out, I don't want people who are in the LGBTQ+ community to feel they are censored," he shared. "I want them to feel like they can walk across that stage expressing their true identity, and Zander's speech as well as his movement is very important, because it affects people like me as well as my community."