Public Speaking 101 (or how to survive giving a graduation speech and feel joy)

(UC Berkeley video by Educational Technology Services)

Tomas Mournian graduated with Berkeley’s Class of 2016, But he started at Berkeley much earlier, dropping out in the 1980’s at the height of the AIDS crisis, moving to L.A. and becoming a journalist covering the entertainment industry. He also wrote Hiding Out,” an investigative feature about teens who’d escape from gay-to-straight bootcamps into Bay Area safe houses. His novel hidden, based on the safe houses, was published in 2011 and he is currently working on Odyssey ’83, the first in a crime series started as a thesis, and Chaos Magic, a memoir about being subjected to “reparative” gay-to-straight therapy. This is his account of speaking at Berkeley’s Winter Commencement in December. 

By Tomas Mournian

Last month, on December 18th at 10:30 a.m., I stood on the podium at Haas Pavilion, looked at thousands of people and gave UC Berkeley’s Winter Commencement speech. I was terrified. Other queer people had given commencement speeches (Ellen DeGeneres, John Waters, Oregon Governor Kate Brown) but none of them were graduating students or spoke about being subjected to gay-to-straight therapy and the AIDS epidemic.

I finished and stepped away from the podium. Now I knew why politicians, authors and activists are eager to do what everyone else in the world fears. For me, giving the commencement speech was more than an amplified selfie. It was alchemy. My personal his-story merged into a general our-story and this melding of the personal with the political became an experience that made me a better activist, artistically emboldened and whole.

I began my journey to that podium at Haas on November, 8, 2016. I stood with thousands of other CAL students, faced a giant screen set up outside Sproul Hall and watched an electoral map of America as it slowly turned red. The morning after was beautiful, limned by bright sun, silver clouds and crisp air. Berkeley looked like Athens by the Bay. I forced myself to leave the house, picked up two book bags filled with school work and set off for a day of research and reading.

During a study break, I listened to an interview with the white feminist, Gloria Steinem. She pointed out that while the election results had articulated a backlash against people of color, women and immigrants, those were ultimately delaying tactics. “Those babies have already been born,” Steinem observed. That night, I attended class and asked the professor — herself an immigrant and feminist scholar — “Is this the beginning of America turning into a fascist state?” She said, “Use your voices.”

During the days that followed, I got emails about the upcoming graduation. I planned to skip it and go to L.A. where I’d get some sun and a brow waxing. But tucked into all those emails about tickets, caps and gowns, one caught my eye: “Graduation speaker needed.”

Later that evening, I sat in an Oakland cafe and wrote the first draft of what became the 2016 Winter Commencement speech. A few days later, I met Katharine Sen (of The Californians) who headed the search committee for the speaker. I stood at a lectern in Dwinelle and, for the first time, I gave the speech.

“Wow,” she said, when I’d finished. “You’ve just made our decision very difficult.”

The next day, I learned that I’d been chosen and began the revision process. I was determined to speak about Darryl Adams, a fellow student who had died of AIDS — and connect that period’s crisis with our era’s crisis: police brutality. In my opinion, both were epidemics. While one was a physical virus and the other sociological, both were, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault theorized, expressions of a dis-eased social body.

I first saw a connection between the AIDS crisis and police brutality in August 2014, the same month that I’d left L.A. and returned to the Bay Area. Michael Brown was killed on the 9th, Ferguson burned on the 10th. Between then and the 2016 election, Sandra Bland hung herself (or, was murdered) and a grand jury exonerated the officers who’d lynched Eric Garner. During the days and weeks after the election everyone — voters, media, politicians (and their advisers) — fiercely debated the results, some defending the president elect, others critiquing the disconnection between the popular vote and Electoral College.

Meanwhile, I rewrote the speech, reaching out to my friend, the feminist filmmaker, Lizzie Borden (Born in Flames, Working Girl), who gave me an ending. Julia Bader (the English professor whose advice I’d taken literally) suggested that I include a personal element (thus, the gay-to-straight therapy). My best friend, Jose Jimenez, pointed out that I needed to explain why I used the name, “Tomas” despite having not brown but pink skin.

But the speech’s deepest revisions happened with Amy Cranch, an editor (and fellow yogi) at UC Berkeley. Amy engaged me in a challenging and productive dialogue about the nature of speeches. She made strike-throughs, offering edits that were choices, not mandates, and nudged the speech towards the center — the place that one aspires to in yoga — where, she said, I could stand, speak and connect with a huge and diverse audience.

During those six weeks of revision, I’d often told people, “I’m giving the Winter Commencement speech.” Those people would smile at me like I was crazy and say, “Oh, you mean for your department?” I’d smile and say, “No — to the entire school.”

Between my not-so-subtle boasting and the passage of time (December! So faraway!), I slipped into a state of denial. I practiced my speech but not in earnest. At night, I often lay in bed and binge-watched other people’s commencement speeches — everyone from Meryl Streep, J.K. Rowling and Sheryl Sandberg to Oprah, Nora Ephron and Michelle Obama. Yes, they were all women (sue me, I’m a feminist) but other than Neil Gaiman (who spoke about mountains and MIB’s) I couldn’t find any speeches that I liked by men.

The speech I loved most was given by the author Barbara Kingsolver, who told a story about living on a farm and linked it with climate change. I started to imagine that while I believed my speech was well written and emotionally compelling, by graduation someone else who was a better looking and more accomplished speaker (ideally, UC Berkeley Medalist Radhika Kannan who gave an amazing speech at the May 2016 Commencement) would step in and give my speech for me.

That didn’t happen.

Sunday morning, I dressed in my plain black gown, drove to campus and walked up the steps to Haas. I felt like I was being escorted to my execution. Entering the Haas Pavilion, I chatted with the ceremony’s main speaker, Olympic gold medal swimmer Dana Vollmer, and confessed that I’d never been to a “game” at Cal. Thus, I had no idea that when I gave this speech that my face would be projected onto a JumboTron in 4-D or that my voice would be amplified and heard by thousands.

As it turned out, standing in Haas Pavilion was similar to standing before my community of queers, trans and p.o.c. and reading my work at Pass the Mic. At Haas, I was likewise supported by queer folk — Regina Marler and Shah Smoak — who sat with my cousin Tracey Ellen Rodriguez and her son, Isiah Harrell.

I edited the speech in real time, skipping over a section about my personal achievements and, overcome with emotion, shortening a paragraph about dropping out of Cal during the AIDS epidemic. From the original, “Changing diapers and holding men’s hands as they thrashed and screamed and succumbed to night sweats,” I simply said, “Died.”)

I walked back to my seat and shook hands with Chancellor Dirks, barely aware of the applause that filled the Pavilion. I watched hundreds of Berkeley graduates file up and accept faux diplomas. We left. Lunch and laughter followed. Shah drove me back to the apartment and dropped me off. I opened the door and, facing an empty living room, realized that I was as alone as I was when I’d left five hours earlier.

The solitude was a stark contrast between being the center of attention to a massive, appreciative audience. I changed my clothes, took the 49 bus up to Shattuck and bought a ticket to the movie Jackie. Afterwards, I slipped into a screening of La La Land. I sat in the back row of the downstairs theater and, watching the last scene — a What If? medley between the actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — I sobbed. But in that moment of grief, something else happened. The husk that had weighed me down for years shriveled up and fell off. And I was free of being a college dropout but had also lightened the circumstances which had triggered my initial withdrawal.

That night, I spoke to Jose.

“I was with my sister today,” he said. “And I told her, I feel like I’m 19 and back to where I left off when I dropped out of Cal State.”
We’d been friends for over 20 years and spoke in shorthand. We didn’t need to explain what this meant because we both knew how far our unconventional life choices had taken us from our early promise. Along the way, we’d stumbled and fallen too many times to count. Yet we’d survived.

This realization was bittersweet. Those years were lost to us. But neither of us could (or, really, would have chosen to) go back. I am estranged from my parents and that won’t change. As much as we’d been architects of our destruction, we’d also engineered our restoration (with a lot of help). We had survived. We were alive, unlike so many others who’d fallen and never gotten up.

The next day, December 19th, I stood on 40th & San Pablo and waited for the F bus to San Francisco. Much like November 9th, it was a bright, clear day with crisp air. I closed my eyes and returned to the moment, exactly 24 hours prior, when I had stood in Haas Pavilion and spoken my truth.

For the first time in many years, I experienced something that I realized that I’d forgotten. Now I felt not only free and whole but for reasons that still remain elusive to me, I felt joy.