With inspiring stories, a passionate theatrical performance and a film evoking tears from the audience, about 130 people gathered on Saturday evening to hear testimonies about prejudice against the LGBTQ community across the nation.
At the presentation in Blau Auditorium, Judy Shepard shared the story of her son Matthew’s death that resulted from a hate crime in 1998. MSA President Chris Armstrong and University alum Jim Toy, founder of the University’s Spectrum Center, were also honored for their activism on LGBTQ issues.
In her presentation, Shepard explained that she became an activist after her son’s death when she began the Matthew Shepard Foundation on the anniversary of her son’s birthday Dec. 1, in 1998.
Shepard said one of the most integral steps in furthering the rights of the LGBTQ community is to educate people and bring the issues to the forefront, emphasizing the crucial role of allies in the fight.
Armstrong is the first MSA president in the student government’s history to be openly gay. At the event he received an award from the Jim Toy Community Center for his composure and resilience when dealing with harassment by former Michigan assistant attorney general Andrew Shirvell, who created a blog that targeted Armstrong for his sexual orientation and accused him of having a “radical sexual agenda.”
In February, Armstrong’s attorney Deborah Gordon told The Michigan Daily that she and Armstrong intend to file a civil lawsuit against Shirvell if he does not recant his statements.
Toy, who is the first gay man to come out publicly in Michigan, was also presented with an award for his dedication to activism in the LGBTQ community since the 1970s. Toy explained the beginning of his involvement in LGBTQ rights, starting when he attended a gay meeting at his Episcopal parish in Detroit in 1970.
Before Armstrong approached the stage, Toy called him a “mentor.”
After walking on stage smiling, Armstrong explained his initial involvement in the LGBTQ community on campus, saying that walking into the Spectrum Center the day after his first football game at the University was one of the “scariest things” he had ever done. But he said the support he has received has been incredibly positive.
“(The award) solidifies all of the growth that I’ve gone through, all the sort of experiences and training that this school’s provided,” Armstrong said in an interview after the event.
Before the presentations, Riot Youth — a group composed of LGBTQ students and allies in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County through the leadership program at the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor — performed a theater piece called “Gayrilla” and directed by LSA junior Michael Sullivan. In the performance, the group voiced some of the struggles LGBTQ high school students face on a daily basis and used stories based on a survey conducted in Washtenaw County high schools.
“ ‘Gayrilla’ is really about making schools a safer place for all queer students,” Sullivan said.
Thomas Zerafa, an LGBTQ community activist in Michigan who attended the event, said he was happy to see the level of dedication for LGBTQ rights demonstrated by Armstrong as well as the Riot Youth performance.
“Chris is just so marvelous, and he’s kept his sanity through everything he went through and that’s a sign of true leadership,” Zerafa said.
Armstrong said he hopes his experiences inspire other students in the campus community who are faced with struggles regarding their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“I hope that (students) understand that they can strive and survive despite some of the harsher treatment,” Armstrong said.
Shepard said in an interview after the event that she was happy to attend because of her admiration for Toy and Armstrong.
“The weekend was amazing, and honoring Chris was especially special because of all he’s gone through in the last several months,” Shepard said. “Everybody needs to feel safe, or there’s no learning going on in any environment. The University has to make a commitment from the top down to protect all their students, and that takes education and a priority set by the administration.”
Gabe Javier, assistant director of the University’s Spectrum Center who also spoke at the event, said in an interview afterward that though the event was inspiring, it is only one step in the process of changing the campus climate for the LGBTQ community.
“The real work is done when you talk to people about what you heard and saw tonight and the impact you can make beyond this,” Javier said.
In an interview after the event, LSA freshman Brian Collins said he found Shepard’s experience very moving and inspiring for further activism.
“Living in Ann Arbor, you get a lot of speakers and presenters, and I have to say Judy Shepard is one the most phenomenal presenters that I’ve ever experienced in my life, so I encourage people to get active and to find out for themselves and hear the message that she has to give,” Collins said.
LSA sophomore Charlotte Keeler also stressed the importance of the event in influencing the entire campus community, not solely the individuals at the event.
“I think most the people in attendance tonight are probably involved with the LGBT community, but it’s important for other people to see that they can do something,” Keeler said.