It’s commencement season. As an adult, I sometimes still want to sit back and hear a comforting adult tell me what it means to join the world — and why I should feel ready for it. Though your college days may be well behind you, enjoy these five gay speakers who give vastly different, though consistently inspiring speeches.
1. Anderson Cooper, Tulane 2010
Anderson Cooper’s address to Tulane in 2010 has some surprisingly curt moments (That Goldie Hawn diss? WTF, A.C.?), but I actually love how he discusses not remembering his commencement. Even more, I dug the way he talked about Hurricane Katrina to the first group of students who arrived at Tulane following the 2005 disaster, referencing real names and locations with his signature straightforwardness.
2. Jane Lynch, Smith College 2012
Jane Lynch is hilarious, full stop. You can always trust an improv vet to give an amazing commencement speech (see: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler) because an improv vet is used to thinking for herself, deriving logical conclusions from surrounding circumstances, and — at all costs — remaining entertaining. Gotta love that Lynch mentions marrying a Smith alumna, and I love how she describes her beginnings in comedy, her anxiety-filled ambitions, and the times she totally, egotistically messed up.
3. Tony Kushner, SUNY Purchase 2008
Does it get better than a line like this?:”Depressed and lonely, I attend graduations looking to mooch off the day’s celebratory spirits.” Tony Kushner’s playfully (albeit sincerely) dour speech springboards into a hopeful finale about gay marriage in California (oh, 2008!). I marvel at the sheer amount of speech Kushner shoehorns into eight minutes, but I most appreciate that his skepticism, fear, and sometimes-hopelessness are channeled into a provocative, critical moment. Commencements are about greeting the world, not shying away from the horrors of it, and Kushner’s elegantly grim speech is a kickass way to begin the journey into post-college reality.
4. Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane 2009
Following up a quick and quippy speech she gave at Tulane in 2006, Ellen DeGeneres returned to her native Louisiana to offer hope, personal anecdotes, and dry-as-hell commentary. She discusses the origin of her famous “conversation with God” standup bit, and that leads into her decision to come out. Frankly, Ellen’s impact on queerness in the entertainment industry can’t be underestimated, and it’s sweet to revisit here.
5. Rachel Maddow, Smith College 2010
To be honest, I think I saved the best for last. Rachel Maddow is exactly who you want at your commencement: Not only is she a colorful and bemused speaker, she’s simply one of the most well-informed people in popular culture. Love that she picked Carrie Nation of all people to discuss, and I think she delivers the greatest commencement thesis statement of all: “Personal triumphs are overrated.” I can’t help but want to hang out with her, even though she is infinitely powerful and deserves to seem far less accessible than she is.
Bonus: Check out Rachel Maddow’s 1990 high school graduation speech, in which she puts her San Francisco burb on blast for being a taboo-overrun, oligarchical anomaly in the Bay area.