On Sunday, I sat down with Michigan Student Assembly President Chris Armstrong, who was sworn in as the assembly’s new leader last night. My primary purpose wasn’t to focus on his successful campaign or his vision for MSA. Rather, I wanted to discuss topics that have received little attention in the past several weeks: his coming out experience, the role that his sexual identity has played in his life and his perspective on the significance of becoming the first openly gay MSA President. Because despite a lack of coverage regarding Armstrong’s sexuality, it’s a really big deal.

What I foresaw as a formal interview with Armstrong actually turned into a fantastic chat about his life. We climbed to the 3rd floor of the Michigan Union and, quite appropriately, conducted the interview just a few feet away from the Spectrum Center. My first impression of Armstrong was of a distinctly energetic and positive individual. Despite a pouring rain outside creating a somewhat somber atmosphere, Armstrong was smiling, laughing and passionately opening up about some of the most personal aspects of his life.

He described the emotional experience of coming out to his parents at the young age of fifteen and the importance of their being supportive regarding his sexuality. He told me about his first relationship early in high school, which occurred years before Armstrong came out to his friends. And he shared that it wasn’t until he came to the University that he fully embraced his sexuality. “Being openly gay, for me, is one of the most salient identities that I have,” he said. “I am inherently tied to all other gay men on this campus, even if I’ve not met them.”

Armstrong’s solidarity stems from the support that the University’s LGBT community offered him in his personal development. “If it weren’t for all of them,” Armstrong explained, “I would have never been in the position that I was.” He says a major motive to run for president was to show younger members of the LGBT commission that a gay man could become president of MSA. Upon accomplishing this goal and learning that he had been elected MSA president, Armstrong says he felt “completely overwhelmed.” It took some time for the significance of his victory to sink in. “I don’t think at that time I really thought… I’m gay and I won,” he explained. “I don’t think I really realized it until the next day.”

Clearly, Armstrong understands that the significance of his election cannot be overstated. Symbolically, his landslide victory is a testament to the University’s ability to promote diversity and support social justice. At a more practical level, Armstrong’s sexuality and involvement in the LGBT Commission is sure to shape the way he approaches his role as MSA president. “You need to understand and be intimately involved in all these different communities so that you can better make decisions on behalf of the student body,” he said.

I could have asked Armstrong a thousand follow-up questions while admiring his positive attitude and disarming smile, but unfortunately he was already 10 minutes late for a study group meeting. I took pity upon him and let him go. And, as I left the Union under the falling rain, I realized that I was smiling now as well. I was smiling because I recognized that Armstrong had run for all the right reasons. I was smiling because his passion for LGBT rights was evident, his determination to improve MSA was crystal clear and his humility in the face of his election victory was striking. Armstrong is intelligent, thoughtful, passionate and determined. But most of all, his ability to overcome adversity shows that he is also fierce. Very fierce.

You may have not supported MForward or Armstrong’s candidacy. You may have abstained from voting in the MSA elections. You may not even know what purpose MSA serves. But what everyone should recognize is that Armstrong’s election is an important milestone in the history of this University. Two years after this country elected the first African-American president, as University students, we have played our role and elected an openly gay president to lead MSA. We’ve made our little mark in the continuing quest for civil rights and equality.

I ended my interview by asking Armstrong if he wished to share something about himself with the student body. “Well, hopefully after this article they’ll know I’m gay,” he laughed. “It makes the significance real.” This was, indeed, my initial purpose for writing this article. As someone who identifies as gay, I wanted to emphasize the symbolism and importance of Armstrong’s victory. But after meeting Armstrong, I realized there was a stronger message I wanted to convey: You don’t have to be gay, lesbian or transgender to be proud of your new MSA president.

Tommaso Pavone can be reached at tpavone@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.