This week, a jury awarded out, gay University of Michigan graduate Chris Armstrong $4.5 million, after Andrew Shirvell, a former Assistant Michigan Attorney General, stalked and tormented him. Today, Chris Armstrong, who showed remarkable grace under tremendous pressure, is On Our Radar.
There is an arbitrary age society chooses to declare a person a legal adult. Traditionally we have designated 18 or 21 as the magic number, but any parent who has lived through it will tell you, reaching that target does not an adult make. As a practical matter, kids enter adulthood on a sliding scale, separate from their ability to cast a vote or purchase a six-pack of Budweiser.
In 2010, Chris Armstrong was a kid. I say this not to disparage him, quite the opposite. Chris acts throughout this sordid story with wisdom and patience and compassion beyond his years. When I tell you Chris Armstrong was a kid, it is because I don’t want you to think that this story is about a disagreement between equals. Between men. This is a story about a grown man who tormented a kid just coming into his own, solely because that kid is gay.
In 2010, Chris was a senior at the University of Michigan. He was gay, out, comfortable in his skin, and he had his parents’ support. His work with the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Michigan LGBT Commission had led to Chris being elected the first openly gay president of the Michigan Student Assembly – accent on student. Chris was a great kid, an accomplished kid, but he was still finding his way into the world.
Andrew Shirvell, who stalked and tormented Chris Armstrong, was an adult by anyone’s standards. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 2002, went on to get a law degree, and had a job as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan. To a student like Chris, his title alone was intimidating, causing Shirvell’s threats to take on the color of authority.
Shirvell has always been on the Right fringe. In 2005 he made our local news when he insisted his neighborhood pizza parlor was being forced to display a rainbow flag on its door by militant gay Friday night pizza lovers. No kidding. The month before Chris was elected, Shirvell wrote emails to the Log Cabin Republicans calling them “sick freaks.” But it was an April 2010 article in the Detroit Free Press announcing his election as the first gay Michigan Student Assembly President that seems to have set off Shirvell’s obsession with Chris Armstrong.
Shirvell created a Facebook page, The Chris Armstrong Watch, where he name-called and insulted and indulged all his homophobic fears, accusing Chris of a plan to use student government to “promote the radical homosexual agenda.” He warned Christian students they were about to be “violently persecuted.” To their credit, Facebook shut down the page as hate speech. It’s a shame Shirvell didn’t take their hint. Instead, he started his own “Chris Armstrong Watch” blog. His first post had a picture of Chris next to a rainbow flag with a swastika on it, and the word “RESIGN” written across his face.
For his part, Chris did not respond in kind. His only comment was an email to the school’s newspaper promising to serve as Michigan Student Assembly President to the best of his ability, saying, “I have always been open and honest about who I am in my life, and I can only do the same in my role as MSA president.”
When the school year ended, Chris went to Washington, D.C. to intern for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Shirvell called her office, and tried to get Chris fired.
In September, when school resumed, Shirvell escalated his stalking behavior. His blog posts became more and more crude. He showed up at gatherings where Chris was speaking, to heckle and protest. He watched Chris’ house, publishing the names of his visitors on his blog, in hopes of outing them. One freezing January night, an obsessed Shirvell circled the block around Chris’ house trying to determine if he was serving underage drinkers at a party Chris and his roommates were throwing. We know this because that’s the explanation he gave the police when he called them to complain about the party at 1:30 in the morning.
Eventually his blog and his crusade against Chris Armstrong came to the attention of Anderson Cooper. Anderson had not yet come out, so Shirvell was more than happy to accept his invitation and repeat his homophobic accusations to a national audience. It was in reaction to Anderson’s CNN show that the first public outcry went up for Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox to fire Shirvell. But Cox resisted the public pressure, saying Shirvell’s actions showed “immaturity” and a “lack of judgment” but in his opinion was protected speech.
Suddenly thrust on a national stage, hounded to say something in response, Chris made this statement at a Student Assembly meeting: “I will not back down. I will not flinch. I will not falter. I will not succumb to any unwarranted attacks. What I will do is I will carry on with the utmost pride and vindication. I, along with the rest of this assembly, were elected to this body to represent the university, and nothing said about us, or regarding our personal merits, will waive our commitment to serve the student body.” But he never stooped to challenge Shirvell directly.
The national press attention ushered in the “lawyer” phase of this drama. Chris hired Employment Law Specialist Deborah Gordon, who immediately asked for a restraining order against Shirvell. The University also took notice and rallied behind Chris, and on September 13 the Campus Police issued a “trespass order” banning Shirvell from the campus and referred his behavior to Washtenaw County Prosecutors. However, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Konrad Stiller declined to prosecute, writing in a memo, “The only fair review of Mr. Shirvell’s statements is that they are offensive and mean-spirited, however, Mr. Shirvell’s statements criticizing Mr. Armstrong’s presidency are not considered harassment under the stalking statute.”
Chris Armstrong still tried to take the high road. He made a good faith effort to resolve the situation, and withdrew his request for an order of protection on the promise Shirvell would stay away from him. But Shirvell did not stop his blog assault, childishly continuing to call Chris names like “Satan’s representative on the student assembly” and “privileged pervert.”
With the national press on the story, it seemed like everyone tried to maneuver under the spotlight. In October the ACLU challenged U of M’s ability to eject Shirvell from its campus. It was election season, and the Democrat running to replace Mike Cox as Attorney General demanded that Cox fire Shirvell. Under pressure from Chris’ attorney Deborah Gordon, who formally requested an inquiry into Shirvell’s on-the-job conduct, Cox opened an investigation. Finally, in November 2010, Attorney General Cox gave into the mounting public outrage and fired Shirvell. Chris Armstrong was decorously silent.
2011 brought the lawsuits. Deborah Gordon filed their complaint in county court asserting Andrew Shirvell had stalked and defamed Chris Armstrong. The one surprise was a generous offer to drop the suit if Shirvell would retract his blog accusations and apologize. He did neither.
Shirvell decided he would rather fight than say he was sorry. Acting as his own attorney, he filed a counter suit in federal court against Chris Armstrong for infliction of personal and economic damage. The next month he added a motion asking the federal court to rescind Chris’ claims of stalking, infliction of emotional distress, abuse of process, defamation and one count of invasion of privacy and move the last count remaining to federal court, since he had moved to New York. Shirvell then filed a separate lawsuit against Deborah Gordon claiming she used undue influence with an investigator on his case to have him fired.
Andrew Shirvell spent the ensuing months complaining about Chris, his lawyer and his “immoral gay lifestyle” to anyone who would listen. Chris Armstrong spent the time concentrating on his classes and his job as student assembly president, and graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in sociology. That November, a time chosen to correspond with the 40th anniversary of the Spectrum Center, the LGBT Community Center on the U of M campus, Chris announced in an “It Gets Better” video that he and his parents were establishing a scholarship for bullied students. In the video, Chris cites his own experience with Andrew Shirvell as a reason he feels a desire to help bullied students.
Shirvell responded to the scholarship announcement with a press release in which he called the video “defamatory,” writing, “The public protests that I engaged in during 2010, as well as my former blog, are protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. There was no ‘bullying’ and no stalking.” He then filed a motion to have Deborah Gordon removed from the case since he was suing her over her part in his termination, and that provoked a conflict of interest.
The wheels of justice may turn slowly, but after a year of motions and threats, justice rolled over Andrew Shirvell like a road grader over Wylie Coyote. In March, the Civil Service Commission upheld his termination. In April, a federal judge dismissed his lawsuits against Chris and his attorney and ruled Chris’ suit against Shirvell could go forward on all counts. By August, they were in front of a jury.
Shirvell acted as his own attorney, questioning himself on the stand for two hours, insisting his concern was for the “open housing” policy Chris advocated and not Chris himself. Deborah Gordon shredded this assertion on cross-examination, making him admit he had never brought his “open housing” concerns to any other student, or student group who advocated for open dorms. Just Chris.
Chris’ lawsuit asked for damages in excess of $25,000. The jury returned a verdict for $4.5 million. Don’t break into your happy dance just yet. It is very unlikely Chris will ever receive much of that money since Shirvell claims he is indigent thanks to Deborah Gordon having him fired. But regardless of how much of his award he is able to collect, it is still an important precedent. Thanks to Chris Armstrong, it is no longer open season on gay students in Michigan.
Shirvell called the jury award “excessive” and has vowed to appeal. He says the right-wing Thomas More Law Center – Battle ready, to defend America! — has offered their help. Shirvell is still adamant in his belief he had a First Amendment right to publish his hate blog and protest wherever and whenever Chris spoke. He has given absolutely no indication he is ready to take Chris up on his offer and say “I’m sorry,” but he did insist to reporters, with a straight and earnest face, that he “has no hate in his heart.”
Outside the courthouse, Chris Armstrong told our local TV news reporters he was “elated.” Besides the boyish grin, there was not much remaining of the kid Chris was two years ago when his crucible began. He has unmistakably crossed the threshold into manhood.
Chris says he plans to move to Washington now that the case is behind him. He wants to work in government. And as I watched him make his prepared statement to reporters, “This is not just a victory for myself, it’s a victory for a lot of other people. It sends a message to bullies,” his future shone so brightly I could almost see it ahead of him.
Today, the resilient Chris Armstrong, is, with great admiration, On Our Radar.
Jean Ann Esselink is straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.
Radar Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
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