More than 100 University of Michigan Law School graduates walk out of Ohio Senator Rob Portman's commencement speech
Students: LGBT rights are not debatable
By James David Dickson
Originally printed 5/12/2011 (Issue 1919 - Between The Lines News)
ANN ARBOR: "Don't open the doors!" the University of Michigan security official instructed her counterparts. "If they want to walk out on their own, fine, but don't open the doors for them."
Everyone at the U-M Law School's May 7 graduation ceremony, also known as Senior Day, knew that a mass student walkout was coming when Ohio Sen. Rob Portman took the podium - they'd been told as much. Security at the school's Hill Auditorium wouldn't stop the students from walking out, but it wasn't about to open the doors for them either.
Portman, a 1984 alum of the Michigan Law School, was invited last month to speak at Senior Day. It is something of a custom for Michigan Law grads who reach the heights in politics to be invited back. Last year's commencement speaker was Michigan Law alum Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.
Andrew Selbst, a 2011 graduate of the Michigan Law School, emerged as the unofficial spokesperson for the protestors. When Portman was announced as commencement speaker, a number of the law school's outgoing seniors planned to protest in some way, but it was unorganized, Selbst said. Eventually they settled on the silent protest, a walkout during Portman's speech.
A small number of the graduates were invited to engage in a dialogue with Portman prior to the ceremony. While students were tight-lipped about what was discussed at the meeting, apparently it did little to squelch the planned walkout.
Days before the ceremony, Selbst told Between The Lines that he expected maybe 40 people to walk out of Portman's speech; more than twice that did. So great was the urge for the protestors to turn their backs on Portman that they actually went ahead of their cue, Selbst said, taking a pause in Cormac Joseph Kerins' introduction of the senator as their chance to leave the auditorium en masse and talk amongst themselves in the lobby.
In his opening remarks, Law School Dean Evan Caminker said that the law school would always be there to welcome its graduates home. Part of the purpose of Senior Day is to bring back Michigan Law grads who have been successful since leaving Ann Arbor. As he explained in a letter to the seniors on April 14, he said "We seek speakers who have achieved success and accomplishment in their professional careers, rather than speakers whose views are representative of all or a majority of the students at the law school."
Caminker said the senator was a great example of where a Michigan Law degree can take a person: "anywhere." Before being elected to the U.S. Senate in November 2010, Portman served as a Congressman and in 2005 was appointed U.S. Trade Representative and later the director of the Office of Management, both cabinet-level positions under President George W. Bush.
Bringing Portman back to Ann Arbor might be custom, but Selbst and others said it was unacceptable, given Portman's votes against gay marriage and, more recently, gay adoption in Washington, D.C. A number of students who took part in the protest described gay marriage and gay adoption as human rights, as issues that don't permit reasonable people to disagree.
Outside the Hill Auditorium guests attending Senior Day were handed a pamphlet explaining the coming protest. About 60 percent of the graduates wore rainbow buttons or flair on their gowns. Family and friends of the graduates wore the rainbow ribbon to show solidarity with grads who would be affected by Portman's votes.
The pamphlet contained a letter from more than 200 Michigan Law alumni to Dean Caminker.
"Senator Portman, in public life, has actively worked to deny some members of the graduating class their civil rights ... Our objection is not a political one ... rather we are concerned about the message Michigan Law is sending by giving an anti-gay rights speaker the honor of marking what should be a joyful occasion," the letter read.
Inside Hill, guests were handed the official program. Everything about it was normal - an image of the law school, the itinerary for the ceremony, the names of this year's graduates - except for a baby-blue insert affirming both the right of the offended graduates to protest and the right of the senator to be heard without protestors "interfering unduly" by shouting him down.
"If the hosts of this event or University representatives believe that protestors are interfering unduly with a speaker's freedom of expression, those protestors will be warned," the letter admonished. "If the warnings are not heeded and the interference continues, then the individuals responsible may be removed from the building."
There was no shout-down. When Caminker mentioned Portman briefly in his opening remarks, the crowd did not boo. When Portman was introduced to speak, the graduates filed out quietly, with no hooting or hollering. When Portman was done speaking and Matthew Jaret Budow, a class of 2011 graduate, was introduced, the seniors returned as quietly as they left.
"We wanted (the protest) to be dignified," Selbst explained in the hallway as Portman spoke. He was joined by about 100 future lawyers from his graduating class. "The legal profession has always led the way in terms of civil rights. I'm proud to graduate with so many people who want to keep leading the way."
Kaitlin Jackson, who is heading to New York to do public defense work after graduation, said that equal rights for the LGBT community is not just another debatable political issue. Jackson, who is a member of the LGBT community, did not attend the forum with Portman, preferring instead that this be a day of celebration. But she did walk out during Portman's speech.
Ringo Vine, a 2011 graduate, is engaged to marry her partner and move to Arizona. She will practice immigration law with the U.S. Department of Justice.
"We can't get married in either of our home states, Minnesota or New York," she said. Arizona, where the two are moving, poses another problem: It doesn't allow for second-parent adoption. While Vine has a male friend who would be willing to father her child, her fiancee would have no rights to the child. She said that politicians who vote the way Portman does are part of the problem.
"I couldn't imagine sitting there, smiling, and being honored by someone who would deny me the right to my civil, human, basic right to marry my partner and raise a family," Vine said.
- ALERT Missing Person In Metro Detroit
- A Remembrance: Robert Clark
- New LGBT Tobacco Disparity Report For Michigan Released
- Representation: Trans Activism In Michigan Lame Duck
- Between Bass And Treble: An Alto Story
- Local Gatherings Against MiRFRA
- Call To Action: Petition Seeks To Stop MIRFRA
- Top Faith Leaders Discuss Religious Freedom, LGBT Inclusion
- The First Trans Helpline In USA Is In Michigan
- LGBT Judge To Speak At Ann Arbor Interfaith Service
- Gay Therapist Discusses Sexualities Of LGBT And Straight Men In New Book
- Affirmations Seeks LGBTQ-Friendly Healthcare Providers
- Ruth Ellis Center Celebrates 15 Years Serving LGBTQ Youth
- The Rise Of 'License To Discriminate'; The Failure Of LGBT Civil Rights
- State Civil Rights Amendment Dead, Says Speaker
- WCC Expands LGBT Protections
- PrEP Debate Continues As Advocates Hold Conversations In State
- 'KICK' Off The Holidays With Annual Gala In Detroit
- Foster Children's Charity Collecting New Toys, Gifts For Holiday Bazaar
- Right Reverend Wendell Gibbs To Speak On Marriage Equality
- Affirmations Hosts Information Session On LGBT Foster Parenting And Adoption
- AIDS/HIV Organizations
- National Association of People With AIDS
- Shelton & Deon Law Group
- Event Planners
- The Wedding Connection
- Gift Shops
- Just 4 Us
- Heating & Cooling
- C&C Heating & Air Conditioning
- Rainbow Jewelers
- Political Organizations
- Pro-Choice Advocates
- Religious & Spiritual
- Congregation Shir Tikvah
- Church of the Good Shepherd UCC
- The Ark
Enter contests to win great prizes like CDs, DVDs, concert tickets and more
- Exclusive! 'Looking' Star Russell Tovey On Sex Scenes, His Famous Butt & That Rimming Cake
- Q&A: Andy Cohen On His (Almost) Tell-All Book, 'Nasty' Names Gays Call Him
- Divine Intervention: Bette Midler Talks Early Gay Support, 'Diva' Degradation & Twerking ('Girls, Please!')
- ALERT Missing Person In Metro Detroit
- Creep of the Week: The Duggars
Sign up to receive our weekly newsletters today!
A study published in the journal The Lancet HIV reports that there is a significant disparity in HIV prevalence between black and white men who have sex with men. The study was published on Nov. 18 and found a startling 32 percent prevalence rate for black men who have sex with men, compared with only eight percent for white men who have sex with men.View More World AIDS Day
This Week's Issue
Download or view this week's print issue today!
Sign up to receive our weekly newsletters today!