100 Michigan Law Students Walk Out Of Graduation: LGBTs Winning Hearts and Minds

Hey, maybe you have heard about this controversy over a graduation speaker at Michigan law? Or maybe not, because although this is the kind of thing Autostraddle would’ve talked about a few weeks ago, we didn’t because this story is a little complicated. Because of me. See, I go to Michigan Law, and in December, I became the co-chair of the school’s LGBT organization. I’ve been on the front lines of the graduation speaker controversy from the beginning, and this seems to be the most optimal place from which to tell this story.

The Story

Sen. Rob Portman

So what happened? Well, three weeks ago, Michigan Law announced that Ohio Sen. Rob Portman would be their graduation speaker. Almost immediately, members of the graduating class began expressing disappointment in the choice because of Sen. Portman’s abysmal record on gay rights. He voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and for a ban on gay adoption in D.C., to name a few votes. His record on many other issues has been consistently conservative. But students focused almost exclusively on his votes against gay equality.

The movement against Sen. Portman grew from there. We held a bunch of meetings and exchanged countless emails. More than 300 students and more than 200 alumni signed letters to the law school dean expressing their opposition. Many more sent the dean personal messages. The efforts were about as effective as these things usually are: the administration listened and apologized for causing a rift in the class, but made it clear that Sen. Portman would remain the graduation speaker.

Our next step was to design a protest that would be visible at graduation. We started taking orders for rainbow tassels and buttons to be worn at the ceremony, and about thirty faculty members and 150 students ordered some rainbow gear. The more controversial option involved a walkout during Sen. Portman’s speech.

Graduation day finally came this past Saturday. Before the ceremony, some students and I handed out pamphlets with rainbow pins on them, explaining the protests. Some people refused them or ripped them up, but for the most part everyone was supportive. For every person that handed it back, there was a student that took a handful of pamphlets, shoved them into their parents’ hands and told them to put on the pins.

photo by Andrew Potter, Between the Lines

The walkout was scheduled to start when the senator got ready for his speech. We had estimated that maybe 40 students would join in. There was always the fear that in the heat of the moment, people would decide not to rock the boat. Instead, people decided they should join their classmates. In all, over 100 students (1/3 of the class) walked out of their own graduation. Check out this video from PrideSource, which shows the mood in the lobby during the protest:

The Point

I have had my qualms with the It Gets Better campaign. Things don’t get better for some people. Not everyone can go to college or move to San Francisco. Not everyone has the option of coming out or of avoiding bigots. Growing up and reaching your 20s does not automatically make life as a queer person any easier.

Still, in the big picture, Dan Savage has a point. That liberal rallying cry — the arc of history bends toward justice — is true in many ways. It can be difficult to see that sometimes, through all the disheartening elections and the hate speech and bullying and suicide and the Tea Party and Fred Phelps. But I think we are making progress.

To my generation, LGBT equality is not a political question anymore; it is an issue of basic human rights. Even people far beyond the boundaries of the queer community are starting to understand our cause. The protests at Michigan Law’s graduation are just a small example of the generational shift we are witnessing right now.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize that Ann Arbor, U of M, and in fact most law schools are uniquely liberal places. Queerness is much more accepted here than in most towns in America. And Michigan students have been protesting conservative speakers for decades, like Henry Kissinger in 1975; the undergrads protested Republican Gov. Rick Snyder as the commencement speaker this year. In other communities, people protest because their schools give honorary degrees to President Obama (and not because it took him so long to overturn Don’t Ask Don’t Tell). Catholic organizations chastise Catholic universities for honoring people who have expressed support of limited access to abortion.

The difference between those protests and the one at Michigan is the message. Students made it clear from the beginning that their objection was not political, even though Sen. Portman has made plenty of other objectionable votes. It was not about liberal vs. conservative. Their objection was deeper. As one of my classmates put it on his blog: “For the next generation of lawyers, this is not even a debatable issue.” It means something that such a large group of people at Michigan cared so much about a symbolic slam against LGBT people. Communities like Ann Arbor are canaries in the coal mine; when we reach a critical mass of people who will not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation, maybe the rest of the country isn’t so far behind.

Of course, there will always be places that hold out and resist tolerance at all costs. The fight never ends; we still grapple with racism and sexism on a daily basis, and I suspect we will still be dealing with homophobia for decades to come. The point is, though, that the people who walked out of Michigan Law’s graduation are the people who will be in charge in ten or twenty years. It may be elitist, but the fact is that lawyers are one of the groups that have a lot of power to make laws and set agendas for the country. Winning over the legal profession is a really great step for the gay rights movement. We will have to work a lot harder to fix the small-scale instances of homophobia, the stares when you walk down the street holding your girlfriend’s hand or the raised eyebrow from the hotel clerk booking a one-bed room for the two of you. But fixing the laws of this country and creating an environment where the government does not sponsor discrimination against LGBT people goes a long way toward achieving equality.

A few weeks ago, a friend emailed me to say that no matter what happened at graduation, she already felt like she won, and it sums up my feelings perfectly: “For the first time in my life, I’m in a place where I know that the majority of people support my rights, and that is a new and beautiful feeling.”

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Sarah lives in Chicago with her partner and her big white Great Dane. She is a lawyer by day and a beer brewer/bread baker/knitter by night. She & her partner are currently learning how to grow their own food, and eventually they hope to move to a small farm outside the city. In 2009-2010, before jetting off to law school, Sarah was Autostraddle's Managing Editor.

Sarah has written 127 articles for us.


  1. Good for y’all! It’s pretty inspiring and amazing that so many students participated in the walk-out.

  2. “For the first time in my life, I’m in a place where I know that the majority of people support my rights, and that is a new and beautiful feeling.”

    i can remember exactly where and when it was that i first felt this. it was indeed new and beautiful, and mindbending and incredible and and and and.

  3. This is so amazing. I’m ridiculously impressed with everything about this, like, beyond words. Things like this are way more important than people think. Congratulations on being amazing. Amazing.

    Let’s hope OSU is taking notes: We’ve got John Boehner coming for spring commencement.

  4. This same sort of incident happened at my own graduation in October for the University of Winnipeg. The main speaker was a politician with very conservative anti-immigration, anti-women, and anti-LGBT rights. There wasn’t a walk-out although there was a passive protest outside and a number of the faculty refused to attend in protest. Our valedictorian caused national news with her speech where she spoke publicly about her shame in sharing the stage with a man whose principles are against the university’s, and with the scandalized hypocrisies in his own personal life. There were a lot of jeers and boos during the speech, but I’m happy to say that more people cheered and applauded her. I sought her out after the ceremony and personally congratulated her on her bravery.

    I’m glad to see that UMichigan Law has followed suit with a bolder and even better protest.

  5. Sarah, this protest and article really moved me. Good for you guys!

    At my commencement, the speaker was Justice Corrigan, who wrote a dissenting opinion on the In re Marriages case — before Prop H8 obviously. She was a horrible speaker, talking about big homes and how it is a privilege to be an attorney. One line about driving down the street in one’s fancy car and remembering the little people sticks out in my mind. She ruffled a few feathers and got seriously heckled, but there was no united effort. Nicely played Michigan Law students.

    • Don’t forget 2/3 didn’t walk out.

      But then again, a third of any group will probably be apathetic to a particular issue, and I like to think at least some of those remaining third were people who were supportive but too cowardly to join in themselves.

  6. THANK YOU for this! As a woman who is working her way towards law school, this gave me hope for the future of our profession and for the future of our nation!!

    GOOD JOB on walking out! Had I been there I would have joined you while merrily holding the hand of my wife!!

  7. Wow! That was awesome and hella inspiring. Michigan Law was near the top of my dream school list before, but this has definitely raised it above Boalt and U of C.

    I was actually a campaign volunteer for Sen. Portman’s Democratic challenger (Fisher) during the last election. If only voters knew then what they knew now…still this gives me hope for the future

      • I have no beef with Northwestern. I just happen to know a couple of people who’ve gone to UofC undergrad and considering I’ve yet to visit any law school in Chicago, it comes down to the things they say about the school. Even though I apparently have a good chance of getting robbed or my car stolen at either school, I’ll probably apply to both in November…:)

    • No matter which school you pick T14 LAW or Tier 2, the important thing is not only where you feel you fit, but where you can excell, but also where you can make a change or difference. All institutions, may seem one way on the outside (liberal /conservative,etc.), but may indeed really deep down may be different than you thought (they both need money- and that may skew things). But thats OK if it ends up that way. Because you will always be faced with challenges beyond academia and make you also more ready to face them. Good Luck. Carpe Diem! or divide et impera! Something like that.

  8. Wow. Well-written and poignant. I’m glad that the student body is/was so supportive!

  9. This is so inspiring!

    And can I just say how badly I want one of those rainbow tassels for my graduation next month.

  10. Sarah — you rock! And so do all the students who had the cajones to stand up and walk out with you.

    Makes me want to wear nothing but a rainbow thong under my gown this Saturday. Alas, I will be clothed.

  11. Rob Portman is more than just anti-gay. He’s as pro Big Oil as a politician can be. His record is shit on the working and middle class. At different times he headed up George W. Bush’s office of budget and management and served as Bush’s trade czar and gee, we all know Bush had a lot of success in both those areas. That’s just for starters. If my school tried to have Rob Portman speak at my graduation, I’d be pissed too. The newly anointed Sen. Rob Portman should thank Lee Fisher everyday for running a very disorganized, poor campaign. Rob Portman got elected because he had a very weak opponent and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC poured money into Ohio on behalf of Portman. Rob Portman is a mediocre public servant with very misguided beliefs about what Americans and Ohioans want or need. In short: Rob Portman sucks. I’d walk out too.

    • I forgot to add: I’m impressed you guys organized the walk out and did it. Robby Bobby Portman (George W. Bush’s nickname for him) had to have noticed. But probably more importantly, everyone in the audience noticed And it seems like the pins and pamphlets made it so everyone knew why. Great job. Very commendable and a touching story.

    • She pointed out he had a lot of problematic policies, but the point was that this wasn’t just a matter of political disagreement. The students saw it as a basic human rights issue, and that was why it needed to be protested. This isn’t an issue on which there should be ANY disagreement.

  12. makes me proud to be a michigander and it’s still great to be a michigan wolverine! :)

  13. This made me feel so much better about living in Ann Arbor, and having attended UofM (though I still question the decision to have Snyder as this year’s speaker. it made no sense whatsoever).

  14. I just took a look at his pix. I’ve spent many a day on weekend wallking around DC with gay friends, getting lessosn on gaydar.

    To me Portman has that wierd smile like minister ted haggard had.

    Secretly gay, self loathing etc. At least, after homo haggard got caught a couple times with a guy in bed, he finally came out for gay marriage.

    And then there was the founder of hte hate group FRC. who got caught taking a rentboy.com male escort iwth him on a trip to Europe. JO-Vanni Roaman – the gay male prostitute admitted his job was to give Reker massages on his private parts.

    And then there is miss moral values of the hate group NIM. Maggie gallagher. 2 illegitimate kids, her husband always hidden??? away, and she doesnt wear a wedding ring.

    But she does get 30% off the top ofthe millionss that NOM collects from bigots.

    the lust for money is the root of all evil

    http://www.catholicarrogance.org http://www.nobeliefs.com/nazis.htm

  15. This makes me so thrilled about attending Michigan Law! I like everything about this protest — it seems mature, relatively discreet, yet attention-worthy.

    Sidenote: Can’t wait to don that exact academic garb three years from now, rainbow tassel and all!

    • It is, however, a little ironic that the next video in line is “Ann Coulter on liberals.”
      Another anti-gay UM Law alum.

  16. Incredible. Inspiring. Amazing! Thank you a million times. The world needs more people like you.

  17. Amazing, all around! Thanks for sharing, Sarah, and cheers to your law school peers. (Rhyme unintended.)

  18. Way to GO BLUE!!!!
    I am an employee at U of M and so happy to hear what you did at the ceremony.
    The admin needs to WAKE UP and listen to the students when they have an issue w/ speakers, I feel they are insensitive and this shows they DGAF about what the students want, I hope this changes in the future!

  19. This is so amazing.

    This is only my second comment on Autostraddle so I feel I should say some more words but the only thing running through my mind right now are synonyms for ‘amazing’.

    • Stupendous, marvelous, incredible, awe-inspiring, wonderful, brilliant, fantastic…

  20. Yaaay Michigan!! That makes me feel so proud, and it serves the school right for not changing speakers when they know DAMN WELL how the students feel.

  21. I say keep this in perspective. I still think it may be viewed as a cheap pathetic excuse of an excersice. It just basically said hey look at us we are so cool and hip and so ultra Ann Arbor hippie chic . Again only 1/3 , hmmmm that by any means, is mathematically way short of the majority. Does it mean that the 2/3 were against it. No. Maybe it shows that a little spectable would be merely pointless and perhaps some thought it would be even tasteless and tacky. Some out of respect for thoise they disrespect or respect for their parents and grandparents, etc. No sense in getting them the elderly potentially upset and afterall who is paying for the majority of their education over the past 6-8 years?
    How many of these just wanted to thumb their nose at the admin for other beefs? How many walkouters actually will have just walked out of there and just got on their merry way with friends and family to a fancy resteraunt,etc. and completely forget about this topic and not really do anything about it? How many are really, I mean really passionate about it? How many will really fight the fight and risk their careers and friends and relationships over it? How many really poured their heart and soul over this the last 3 years there as law students priior to the annpouncement of the guest speaker. How many will when faced with decisions like the Senator would act any differently now or in the future. Just because it seems like a popular novelty thing and sure they may be all for gay rights, but so were probably many of those who did not particpate. If someone comes up in a spontaneous gesture and says herewe need tyou to waear this and sign this, or do this to send a message to this and that, I would probably be hesitant also, because I do not know who they are or what the facts are and what specific incidents, who are they for me to take their word without figuring out for my self to take a little time and research and here both sides? The clip actually could be construed as a handful of lets all be liberal free thinking law students and maybe get some 15 seconds of fame and say later on, hey I was part of that how cool was I. Too bad as the issue is real, and some people who had good intentions that started this have passion for it. Were they gpoing to strip them of their degrees, of course not, no risk, no gain.

      • Sorry DINA , Idid not know you were only interested in showing off your editing prowess.I type at over 200 words a minute and work 12 -16 hours shifts, and had to get going or I would miss my ride. I am a medical bio engineer not a journalist, this is an informal blog not a work of English grammar. I know a handful of law students including a friend of mine that cannot live without spell check. Does that make his liberal oppinions count any less? How long did it take to right ( haha ) write your short seven words. That’s how narrow minded you are, that you cannot even comprehend and figure out a one letter off, because you don’t like to hear any oppinions other than your own or those that are similar. Niceeee!

  22. You’re right. Supporting human rights is a popular novelty thing, and people only protest bigotry to make themselves look cool. They should have sat quietly so as not to upset their grandparents, because gays aren’t real people and so what they feel doesn’t matter, but heaven forfend Ethel spend a mildly uncomfortable moment.

    I’m so glad you were here to bring us those important and heartfelt questions. I’m a better person now.

    Sarah, this was awesome. Every single thing like this makes me feel a little happier/safer.

    • I wasn’t going to respond, as I think we basically agree on the main issue, but the novelty popular thing was referring to the very act of walking out, is a popular and novelty thing or idea, I could of worded it better, agreed. To me and perhaps others was perceived almost like an equivalent to talk to the hand, or or putting your hands over your ears, and yelll blah blah blah, can’t hear ya. Its been done in some of my classes, musicals,other event,etc. For some of us it getsold, therefor less effective. Knowing that the person/group no matter what side of the coin they are on , cannot or willnot be able to respond. The geture many times falls on deaf ears. Here we are in this talking about it, but we understand the problem. The ones who may not give a crap about it, won’t care even less, and those who were maybe reachable, may now be lost or turned off. I don’t want to put down the real passionate originators of this, I ‘ll give them some credit for doing something– but just keep in perpective. It may give us that feeling of rush of yayh way to stick it to the man- kind of instant gratification. I also wanted to see if those among this community are open enough to accept any other oppinions, its base on what I have heard and seen, it may be wrong or right or somewhere in between. Courage also comes in different forms, the one friends couzin didn’t have the courage to walk out because of not so much the issue, just for a dare. Those who didn’t, may have well done things prior that took more courage we can’t assume, and just didn’t want to participate for other reasoons not because they were cowards. My mother (52) did not walk out during the 70s at jr. high school about Lt. Cally (vietnam) protest, she felt that almost all the students just wanted to get out of class. What she and her friends did, took more courage and directive actions at city hall, school board their local county outside of school, and recruiting stations, 13-15yr olds, took guts to do that. While walking out of school with a mob of 7-9th graders who cared more about the Monkees (?) and passing love notes than the war. My dad in high school did, but he said he just figured one day he might be drafted and walked out because everyone else did and was kind of like a party on the front lawn (good reason-way to go pops), fortunately it was over by the time he was of age, but not for my oldest uncle. I hope some of them will be lawmakers, and I hope that they can keep well intentioned, but many in past sell out or at least at best realize they have to push at the right time and place to get a few small things passed, better than none. Being “radical’ or being subtle, which ever works, I guess sometimes we unfortunately have to be patient. But who says greedy money grubbing corporate lawyers can’t also help with LGBT rights?

  23. Seriously MOSHA WITTATTACKER? It’s *Graduation* the very pinicle of “I’ll wear stupid hats and pose awkwardly for pics because it will make the parents/grandparents happy and say nothing controversial.” That’s what I did getting as an under grad and whilst getting a Masters. And Law school graduation with its long years of extra study and expense, to have 1/3rd have the courage walk out of that is amazing, so I hope many of those that DID walk out went on “their merry way” to have a happy celebratory lunch with family and friends. If that big a % walked out you can bet there were several more that wanted to but didn’t yet have the courage. Realistically, as many have said previously, one of the big ways to eventually win is to have the majority of those who will become lawmakers and prescedent setters on side and that is starting to happen.

    • Rosybum,
      What if ten people all had different agendas, how chaotic. I am sure you paidevery dime of your schooling, no help from mom, dad, or grandparents or even uncle sam good for you. I think you will be amazed how many will sadly end up being sell outs. the point was just walking out was simple. To continue to act and make real change takes much much more efforts. To say this is a start for some maybe, for most I sadly doubt it. In fact today I talked tosomeone whose cousin who walked out and said they all got a kick out of it- it was like a fun dare to her. To me its a kick in the face to the LGBT community. See I don’t disagreee with the message just the way it was done including those who wanted to join in at last second for the thrill. What aboyut asking for time to engage with Portman, get constructive. and also dissapointed in the school to have a speaker that they knew was going to be controversial potential and at last second. ( perhaps it also may have been a set-up ) Out of all the speakers, come on, this was the best UM Law could find or get. I just didn’t think it was that great or effective as it could of been, that’s all.

  24. Thank you for all your hard work in organizing and rallying people around such a strong and powerful statement at your graduation. I teared up reading this and and blown away by this statement of solidarity.

    Granted, not everyone walked out. But not everyone will always stand up for what is right. Yet a gesture like this will still send a message and give people hope. And isn’t that’s what it’s all about? “You gotta give them hope” as Harvey Milk said.

  25. Deep lesbian nod for this one, yo. It made my day to see how many were willing to take a day traditionally self-centered occasion (and rightly so!) and make it instead about the greater good. THE GAY GOOD. Dreamy.

  26. This is such an inspiring story. My gf and I are from New Zealand and we are very very impressed and proud of everyone who stood up and walked out.

  27. Sarah,

    As another law student and the co-chair of the LGBT Caucus of the University of Maine School of Law, I want to simply say this: Thanks. We need more LGBT people and LGBT friendly people in the legal community.

  28. This gives me a little hope for the world…that when our generation can take over things may change.

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