- Samantha Trauben/Daily
BY ELYANA TWIGGS
Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 30, 2010
“Work hard, be true, go blue,” said former Michigan Student Assembly President Abhishek Mahanti last night in the Assembly Chambers, before yielding his position leading campus's leading student governing body to LSA junior Chris Armstrong. Business School junior Jason Raymond, Armstrong’s running mate, was also sworn in as MSA vice president.
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Elected in a landslide victory last Friday, LGBT Commission Chair Chris Armstrong of MForward is now the first openly gay MSA president — a fact he said he hopes will have large implications not only for the LGBT community on campus, but also for the greater University community.
Armstrong said he hopes that being gay and holding a position as assembly president will demonstrate that any University student can represent the “spirit of Michigan.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily yesterday, Armstrong recalled how he did not expect to ever be elected MSA president, after hiding his identity throughout high school and staying out of the public eye. He admitted that he only came out to a few friends and his parents by the end of his senior year in high school.
Elected at the end of his freshman year to be a MSA representative, Armstrong said he was “impressed” by the other representatives and the atmosphere of the MSA Chambers, but never thought he was capable of holding such a leadership position as a gay man.
Over the past three months of campaigning and forming MForward, Armstrong said he became even more sure of himself that he was ready to fulfill the role as president, despite his sexual identity.
“I think that slowly over the course of the campaign that broke down,” he said. “It shows that MSA can do anything.”
After serving two years as chair of MSA’s LGBT Commission, Armstrong has made a name for himself within the community.
His work in bringing the Midwest LGBT Conference to campus next year came from his work with the Victory Fund — a national political action committee that trains LGBT leaders to hold political positions in the government and across the country. Victory Fund also helped Armstrong — who interned with the committee last summer — in his MSA campaign, he said.
Armstrong cited that Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh, another openly gay politician, also worked with Victory Fund. Armstrong said Pugh's political success inspired him and proved that he could lead a similar role.
Gabe Javier, Armstrong’s self-proclaimed mentor and assistant director at the University’s Spectrum Center, said Armstrong’s esteemed position as MSA president will have a large effect on the campus as a whole. He said Armstrong’s election win is a “proud moment” for the University and has important implications for the LGBT community to have such representation.
“I have high confidence that Chris is going to represent the interests of all students,” Javier said. “This is an important time for Michigan.”
Javier said Armstrong is a great role model for every student who is struggling to find his or her identity.
“It’s really great to have a role model like Chris out there who can show that it’s possible to be a student leader and be out and be successful as a gay person,” he said.
Javier said the University isn’t the first university in the Big Ten to have an openly gay student government president. In 2006, Ohio State University elected an openly gay student to serve as the school’s student government president.
Armstrong said his new position has been an amazing feat for the LGBT community.
“I think that personally, it’s a big accomplishment for the LGBT community on campus,” Armstrong said, adding that his willingness to express his identity motivated him to run in the election.
Armstrong said he wants to inspire students, especially freshmen, to have hope that they can hold a position of power despite their background or identity.
Armstrong said his identity would play a role in making MSA more “welcoming” to the entire student body.
“Regardless of what community you are from, you can become a student leader that is leading 40,000 students,” he said.
Javier echoed Armstrong’s comments, and said Armstrong’s role in MSA sets a new precedent for University students.
“Chris is a good example of someone whose identity is important, and only one important aspect of him,” Javier said. “I hope that it encourages other students to see themselves as student leaders and be out in all of their identities.”
Armstrong said that he hopes his position will make University administrators take MSA more seriously.
“I think that it will make MSA more legitimate in the eyes of the administration,” he said. “(Being elected as MSA president could) make administrators and even the regents and maybe the state legislators recognize MSA as a body that can really inspire hope within the student body at large.”
Armstrong said he hopes that if different bodies take MSA more seriously, MSA representatives will feel like their work in the assembly is worthwhile.
“In terms of the culture of MSA,” Armstrong said, “this will make the representatives feel that the projects they are taking on will have more leverage at the University.”
Armstrong said his identity wouldn't be the main focus of his presidency, though it is still a central part of his life. He said this is the reason his sexual orientation didn't come up a lot during the campaign.
“It defines what kind of leader I am, and it defines who I am, but that doesn’t mean that I only represent that community,” Armstrong said.
During the beginning of his campaign, Armstrong said he wanted to be president to shed more light on the “legitimacy” of the LGBT community, but toward the end, he realized he was campaigning to represent the entire student body — not only students who identified with him.
Armstrong said without the University, his identity would have never driven him to be the political activist he is today.
“The support structure — the sense of feeling that you’re a part of something — that has really guided me in each step and each year,” he said. “Without that support structure, I would never be in this position.”
The newly-elected president said his involvement with the Spectrum Center and the LGBT community makes his future in MSA even more “empowering.”
“It pushes me to want to do so much over the course of next year,” Armstrong said. “It encourages me to be the best I can be at this position.”
Armstrong said he wouldn't make his sexual orientation the focus of the assembly, but said that it could be significant to MSA and the student body at large.
“I won’t showcase it, but I think that it will always be important for individuals to remember that this did happen, and I was elected,” he said. “I think the implications can resonate and be very positive for U of M.”
As the first openly gay MSA president, Armstrong calls his newly-elected position “symbolic” for the assembly. He said he hopes more people will feel welcome to be themselves at the University.
He added that he encourages gay students to express their sexual orientation without fear of being discriminated against.
“Hopefully individuals will feel comfortable coming out at U of M and know that it’s a comfortable environment despite fears and inhibitions,” he said.