In “What It Meant to Me,” Leaders & Best invites some of U-M’s most revered alumni to tell their Michigan stories. Chris Armstrong is a graduate of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA). Here, he reflects on his maize and blue heritage, the controversy surrounding his student body presidency, and the enduring impact of U-M’s Spectrum Center.
It’s a spring evening in 2010, and I am at my friend’s apartment in Ann Arbor—the same apartment that a week before I had celebrated my successful campaign for Michigan’s next student body president—when my phone vibrates. It’s a message from another friend. “Have you seen this?” it reads, with a link attached. I have no idea what it could be. So I click on the link and am led to a Facebook page called, “U-M alumni and others against Chris Armstrong’s radical homosexual agenda.” It has 123 followers. I assume the page is some kind of prank… Little did I know that this wasn’t a joke. That it was actually the start of a series of events that would alter the course of my life forever. But I am getting ahead of myself.
I grew up in a small town in Connecticut, about an hour north of New York City. My grandfather James H. Armstrong (BS ’41) was my family’s first connection to Michigan. The only astronomy major in the University of Michigan’s class of 1941, my grandfather loved his alma mater. And though he passed away before I was born, his Michigan pride left its mark on my family and me.
As a kid, I remember his old block-M ashtrays around the house. I remember three hand-drawn pictures of the Ann Arbor campus on the walls: one of the diag, the engineering arch, and the president’s house—all gifts to my grandfather from the university. And how could I forget fall Saturdays with college football on the television. If you were an Armstrong, you rooted for the Wolverines.
I always knew that I would apply to Michigan, but I didn’t visit Ann Arbor until my senior year of high school. It was a cold, snowy day in March. And despite being chilled to the bone, I thought campus was just about the most beautiful place I had ever been. By the following fall, I was back on campus for freshman orientation.
One of my first memorable experiences as a student was at the Big House. I was never a big sports fan, but my father insisted that I see a Michigan football game as soon as I had the chance. Nobody in my family had been to the Big House since Michigan’s historic 24-12 upset over Ohio State in 1969 that foiled the Buckeyes’ dreams of a second national title.
So when Michigan’s 2007 season-opener rolled around, I thought to myself, “I guess I’m doing this.”
It was the infamous Michigan vs. Appalachian State game. Michigan lost to the Yosefs (don’t ask me what a Yosef is) by two points in the final seconds of the fourth quarter, resulting in one of the most shocking upsets in college football history.
Walking home, tired and sunburnt amidst a flood of discontent fans, I knew that I needed to find some other ways to get involved on campus. Fortunately, that didn’t take very long.
I was lucky to make a number of good friends in my first few months in Ann Arbor. Many of them were active in student life, and they encouraged me to plug in, as well. Soon, I found myself as chair of the LGBTQ+ commission and a student government representative for LSA. Looking back, those leadership opportunities were incredibly formative for me. They helped me discover who I was and made Michigan feel like a place where I belonged.
At home in Connecticut, my family and friends knew about my sexual orientation, but it wasn’t until moving to Ann Arbor that I felt comfortable being openly gay. In high school, I remember highlighting a specific line about Michigan in one of my guide-to-college books. It said, “Gays and Lesbians are organized at this university.” Looking back, that terminology feels a little odd, but a few years later, I was making those words a reality.
My next two years followed a similar cadence of organizing students and planning events on campus. By the spring of my junior year, I was beginning to look forward to a quieter college life where I could focus on my sociology thesis and start planning for my future.
Then one day, my friends asked me if I would consider running for student body president. We were all passionate about enhancing life on campus for students, and specifically about changing university policies surrounding gender-inclusive housing. My friends were also very talented at campaigning. They had just finished working for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign with the College Democrats of America. All things considered, it felt like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
So we ran, and we won.
A week after the results were announced, people began to realize my election was history-making, that I was the university’s first openly-gay student body president. It was around this time I received the message about the Facebook page. But as I said earlier, I didn’t think all that much about it.
Weeks later, I was asked to speak at an LGBTQ+ support rally on North Campus. At the time, anti-gay rhetoric was sweeping the nation. From bullying in schools to public protests by religious and political groups, there was a lot of animosity toward the LGBTQ+ community then. In response, we were gathering together outside the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s production of “The Laramie Project,” a play based on the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, to demonstrate hope and a sense of camaraderie amidst the negativity.
So there I was at the front of this rally giving my speech when I saw this man making his way to the front holding a sign. It read, “Chris Armstrong=Racist Liar” in large, red Sharpie script. The man was Andrew Shirvell, who I later found out was a member of the Facebook group and an assistant attorney general for the state of Michigan.
That night, Shirvell launched a blog called, “Chris Armstrong Watch,” where he began publicly posting defamatory content about me, my family, and my LGBTQ+ friends. Many of us had not had conversations about our sexual orientation with our employers or even our families, and all of a sudden there was this growing spotlight on us all.
As spring turned to summer, Shirvell’s bullying took new forms. He began phoning my internship in Washington D.C., hanging posters about me on campus, and much more. It became clear that he had some kind of vendetta against me.
By the fall, news outlets across the country caught wind of what was happening. Before long, journalists and photographers were calling me to talk and to schedule photo shoots. Anderson Cooper was inviting me on his show. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was on campus doing interviews. I had just turned 21, and it was a lot to handle. Too much. And I still had to be a student somehow. I had to write a thesis, stay on top of my coursework, and also try to enjoy my final year in Ann Arbor.
Then the Spectrum Center stepped in. They were basically my lifeline. Their staff provided emotional stability and were a gracious listening ear that I could come to and vent about the challenges I was facing. They also helped with practical things, like structuring my schedule and organizing my email inbox, which was overflowing with correspondence to the point that I was missing links to assignments and messages from my professors. They even connected me with U-M alumnus Howard Bragman (AB ’78), one of Hollywood’s finest crisis-communications specialists, who offered me invaluable media advice.
I also found strength and courage in the U-M community. You would not believe how many Michigan alumni and friends reached out over the course of those events to ask if I was okay and to offer additional help. It was incredible to feel like I had a whole network of people backing me up.
With the support of the Michigan family, I finished my thesis and graduated that spring with a degree in sociology. Along the way, I was also fortunate enough to help lay the groundwork for U-M’s decision to change their student housing policy. Today, Michigan offers vibrant gender-inclusive housing options.
My conflict with Andrew Shirvell, however, didn’t resolve until months later. We went to court to settle the ordeal, and the jury found Shirvell guilty of defamation. And that was, more or less, the end of it.
After graduation, I moved to Washington D.C. in search of a new normal. I began working for President Obama’s 2012 campaign and then the White House’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force before settling into a career with small business and health care advocacy.
In 2019, I returned to the University of Michigan to partner with the Spectrum Center in preparation for their 50th anniversary. A lot of people don’t know that the Spectrum Center is the oldest LGBTQ+ university resource center in the country. Fifty years! That’s incredible to me.
Through this work, I continue to hear stories from alumni, and it’s amazing how many of them reference the support of the Spectrum Center. Some never even walked through the center’s doors but remembered those resources being there and how much that meant to them.
I’m truly thankful for the opportunity to share my Michigan story. Like my grandfather, I continue carrying on the Armstrong family’s pride for U-M. It’s the word that comes to mind when I think of what it meant to me. Pride: it works on several levels.