When Michigan Student Assembly President Chris Armstrong first applied to college, he had visions of becoming a video game engineer. His college essay was about the artistic merits of his favorite video game, and he only applied to colleges with excellent video game design programs.
But when this self-proclaimed nerd eventually came to the University of Michigan, he decided to take a different path. Armstrong immediately joined the University’s LGBT commission when he arrived on campus. He later became chair of the commission, and then ran for MSA president last spring.
Armstrong’s term as MSA president is halfway over, but his presidency has already received more publicity than most who serve in college student governments. Last fall, Armstrong gained national attention for the attacks he received from now former Michigan Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell. The incident has been front and center in Armstrong’s presidency, but he hopes to change that in the four months he has left.
Armstrong joined MSA as a freshman and quickly rose through the assembly ranks as a representative on the assembly’s LGBT Commission.
“I immediately wanted to get involved with LGBT groups on campus because I wanted to meet other gay people,” Armstrong said last week in the offices of The Michigan Daily.
Armstrong made a lot of progress on the commission. He helped plan a launch event for National Coming Out Week in fall 2009 and was integral in helping the University become the host of the 2011 Midwest Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Ally College Conference.
“I started getting involved and it just sort of spiraled and spiraled,” he said.
That same year, Armstrong met Jason Raymond, a fellow MSA representative, and the two became good friends. Two-and-a-half years later, the pair decided to run for office together.
Both were interested in the top position, but it was ultimately decided that Armstrong would run for the presidential spot. Raymond explained that putting Armstrong in that position was viewed as an excellent opportunity to represent his issues and break down a lot of barriers within MSA, since Armstrong would be the first openly gay MSA president at the University.
“We’re very much a team and we didn’t really care about the titles,” Raymond said, “but we decided it would be a great victory for Chris’s community for him to be MSA president.”
Freshman year, Armstrong and Raymond also met Alex Serwer, who helped build their campaign when they decided to run. Once elected, Armstrong appointed Serwer his chief of staff. Like Raymond, Serwer said putting Armstrong in such a distinguished position sent a powerful message.
“It’s a big moment for LGBT individuals.” Serwer said. “Seeing another (LGBT) student in such a prominent position is a really big deal for that incoming freshman that doesn’t really know what the LGBT community is like on campus,” he said.
Armstrong and Raymond ran with the organization MForward — a party that stands on the platform of representing a diverse group of students on the assembly, which they founded.
MForward viewed Armstrong’s future legacy as the first openly gay MSA president as an important milestone, and the party’s platform focused on LGBT issues. However, the party didn’t try to use Armstrong’s personal story to their advantage, and the issue of his sexuality wasn’t brought up by either party during the election.
“We always had the same issues that we wanted to work on, and that was never something that we had to make special arrangements for or consider in a different light,” Raymond said.
Serwer emphasized that the platform of the campaign was built around issues, and not Chris’s personal decisions.
“We made sure that whatever we were preaching to the students as they were voting was what we stood for, rather than Chris’s sexual orientation,” Serwer said.
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Armstrong grew up in a small town in Connecticut with a population of about 25,000. While he came out to his parents when he was 15 years old, he had only told a couple of close friends in his hometown, and was not openly gay until he came to the University. Armstrong said hiding that secret in high school made him want to do things differently when he went to college.
“My goal when I came to the University of Michigan was to live openly, to be out and to really see how my life could be being myself,” Armstrong said.
While he was not ashamed of his sexuality, he said he always knew running as an openly gay man would create obstacles. He explained that a lot of insecurities about how he was dressing and acting surfaced when he assumed the presidency.
“To a certain extent, I’ve had to try to project more of a sense of authority just because there’s always that sense people won’t take you seriously,” Armstrong said. “I think those insecurities are universal, but when it comes from a minority or a minority group sometimes it’s more augmented.”
The obstacles Armstrong predicted were particularly challenging to overcome last April, when Shirvell, a University alum, began harassing Armstrong and his friends and family. Shirvell launched Chris Armstrong Watch — a blog Shirvell ran in order to monitor Armstrong and to accuse him of promoting a “radical homosexual agenda” on campus.
Shirvell posted pictures of Armstrong on the blog and drew offensive symbols over his face, like a swastika on top of a gay pride flag. On another picture, he wrote “racist, elitist liar” across Armstrong’s face.
Shirvell first approached Armstrong at a counter rally to a protest hosted by the West Borough Baptist church over a production of “The Laramie Project” in May 2010. Armstrong was speaking at the event in defense of the production, and said he had never once spoken to Shirvell prior to the rally.
As news of Shirvell’s blog began spreading across campus and the nation, Armstrong tried to abstain from reading it and to remain unaffected by it. But he “wasn’t surprised” when he found out about it.
“When I was running for president, knowing the background I had and knowing I wasn’t going to be closeted — I was going to be out with who I was — I wasn’t surprised because I was waiting for it,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong said the accusations didn’t concern him until Shirvell began attacking his friends and family.
“It was certainly upsetting the things he was saying, but it hurt more when he would say things about the people around me because to a certain extent I signed up for this. I signed up to be criticized,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong remained publicly silent through most of the Shirvell incident, refusing to dignify the attacks with a response. And even when Armstrong did finally speak out, it was not a direct result of Shirvell’s actions.
Armstrong spoke out on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” — the first national media outlet to report the incident — after multiple gay adolescents committed suicide across the nation as a result of bullying.
“The only reason he went on Anderson Cooper was purely because during the week the Andrew Shirvell incident blew up in the media there had been a number of suicides across the nation with teens that were criticized by their classmates because they were gay or had been outed,” Raymond said.
Raymond said that no matter how hard Shirvell pushed him, Armstrong maintained a grounded perspective of the incident and refused to allow the blogger to prevent him from doing his job on the assembly.
“He could have engaged in a fight with this guy,” Raymond said. “He had many opportunities to do so over national media outlets. But instead Chris wanted to focus on the issues. He wanted to focus on his work on the assembly.”
Armstrong tried to serve as best he could during the controversy, using the position he had earned to push the improvements to campus he thought most necessary. But the episode did distract him from focusing entirely on MSA issues, which he says was the most upsetting aspect of the incident.
“I felt to a certain extent I was letting things get to me and had trouble refocusing,” Armstrong said.
Serwer also commented on the effects of the distraction, noting that many members of the assembly turned their attention away from the MSA issues they had wanted to focus on in order to deal with Shirvell’s attacks. But he said the distraction didn’t detract from the assembly’s overall goals.
“There were times when we were more focused on the incident at hand than we were with the latest MSA project and making sure whatever it was got done in the absolute strictest timeline,” Serwer said. “But it didn’t detract from our goals to any insurmountable point.”
In fact, many of the people that surround Armstrong on the assembly found the incident did the exact opposite. Raymond said Shirvell’s unjustified comments made the assembly want to pass more legislation dealing with LGBT issues.
“If anything, (the incident) gave us a little more fire when it comes to issues like open housing — issues that Andrew Shirvell targeted as a part of Chris’s ‘gay militant homosexual agenda,’ ” Raymond said. “I think it really empowered a lot of people on the assembly and really made us want to work harder.”
In recent months, MSA has been focusing their efforts on the issue of Open Housing which would allow students to choose to room in the dorms with students of the opposite sex.
Vice President for Student Affairs E. Royster Harper, who consults with Armstrong about student issues on a weekly basis, said she was impressed by his level of commitment to the assembly in the height of Shirvell’s attacks.
“Most of the time when I would meet with Chris during that period he would say, ‘I want to focus on what we need to get done on MSA,’ ” Harper said. “He would be the one that would make it clear that we needed to have a conversation related to MSA. And really, I’m not sure many people could have done that.”
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But the rest of the student body wasn’t able to overlook the situation as easily. Students created a Facebook group in support of Armstrong and there were many pleas to the attorney general’s office to fire Shirvell for his actions. As of 8 p.m. on December 7, 19,469 people “like” the group on Facebook and have posted messages of encouragement and support of Armstrong.
Despite Shirvell’s bullying, Armstrong said that, in certain ways, the student body’s response to the situation made it worth enduring.
“It was really difficult to deal with all that, but I think at the end of it there have been so many reaffirmations about what this campus is, how we feel when someone outside our campus attacks someone inside our campus and that sense that we will respect each other no matter what,” Armstrong said.
As Armstrong tried to remain unaffected by the attacks, he said he was humbled by the student body’s outrage. Many students and organizations on campus took it upon themselves to rally for Armstrong and cry out against Shirvell.
“Seeing campus rally around bullying and LGBT issues the way that they did in reaction to the situation really showed how strong this campus is and showed how strong our values are,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong acknowledges that he was simply the focal point of a much larger issue. He says he found the campus’s attitude regarding bullying toward the LGBT community a testament to the University’s commitment to diversity and acceptance.
“In a lot of ways, despite some of the issues that became national, I think for this campus, the pros have outweighed the cons,” Armstrong said.
While the Shirvell incident raised awareness for LGBT issues on campus, Armstrong said he doesn’t want that to be the only aspects of campus his administration improves.
“I wouldn’t say promoting LGBT issues is my main goal. That’s my background,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong said that his favorite part of the job is not furthering his own issues, but rather being able to help all types of groups on campus further their own goals.
“This University is so much bigger than you and the community you associate with. There’s a Michigan nation and there are so many different sects and parts of that,” Armstrong said. “Really the big challenge I’ve faced, and really enjoyed, is being able to be that face for as many of those issues as possible.”
Harper said Armstrong has intentions of making sure his sexual orientation doesn’t define himself, his agenda or his leadership.
“He could lead in such a way that one would think the only thing that matters are those things related to LGBT students but that has not been his leadership at all,” Harper said.
In fact, Armstrong said he hopes he is not just remembered for his work on LGBT issues. Armstrong laughed as he said the most impressive accomplishment that came to mind was the progress his administration made with the MSA website. Last March, MSA was heavily criticized for spending more than $9,000 on a website that didn’t function properly.
“The fact that we were able to revise the website after the whole debacle was such a motivating experience,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong has implemented a lot of changes during his 3-and-a-half years on campus — many of which have been overshadowed by the Shirvell incident.
In January 2009, Armstrong was integral in creating a task force that oversees organizations on campus and offers recommendations on how they can improve.
In February 2010, Armstrong was also the driving force on the assembly behind getting the University an offer to host the 2011 Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender and Ally College Conference, that it had been denied the previous year.
In October 2009, Armstrong helped plan a large event on the Diag to kick off National Coming Out Week. The event had a makeshift closet on the steps of Hatcher Graduate Library and people that attended the event were able to come out of the closet — literally and figuratively — and speak about their personal experiences.
This past March, Armstrong helped push through a resolution supporting Saturday night dinner in the dining halls on campus. He also helped to plan a trial run in three dining halls to demonstrate its effectiveness and spread awareness about the proposal.
But Armstrong and his staff’s biggest project to date has been working to get University Housing to adopt a gender-neutral housing option for students. The proposal, which was re-named the Open Housing Initiative, has made progress in recent months. The resolution was passed by MSA in December 2009. The Residence Hall Association passed a resolution in support of the option in April 2010.
“I’d say we’re right on our timeline. We set up goals that we would complete the proposal by a certain deadline and we met that deadline and now it’s being considered by administrators,” Serwer said.
Last week, the Open Housing Initiative submitted a proposal to several relevant administrators to be reviewed. According to Serwer’s understanding, there are many administrators, in addition to housing officials, who have jurisdiction on the issue. The Open Housing Initiative won’t know any more details until they sit down with these representatives next week.
“The Open Housing Initiative and administrators have told us that students have done everything that possibly could have been done to show that there’s support behind this issue and logically argue for the implementation of open housing,” Serwer said. “The responsibility fully lies within the administration to implement this policy.”
So while it remains unclear if the option will be ready to implement this coming fall, Armstrong is working diligently to ensure it is put into effect as soon as possible.
“I have been devoting a lot of my time to open housing and it’s certainly been a struggle. And I want people to recognize that that issue made a lot of strides this year and emerged from some small conversations with housing to a large campus debate,” Armstrong said.
And Armstrong is working hard to ensure that these debates are not overshadowed by the Shirvell incident. Armstrong said that he hopes to take what he has learned from the incident and apply it to his life and the assembly.
“It’s certainly unfortunate that (the Shirvell incident) is the only thing that will be highlighted in some people’s eyes,” Armstrong said. “But I also think even though it was an unfortunate situation, I don’t think the outcomes were unfortunate.”