Andrew Shirvell, the assistant attorney general of Michigan, has been suspended.
This is uneasy news for anyone who believes that being gay is not a pretext for discrimination and violence. Shirvell has been the sole author of a blog (made “invite only” as of Friday morning) called “Chris Armstrong Watch,” whose singulary raison-d’etre is formulating bigoted assaults on Chris Armstrong, a University of Michigan student who became the school’s first openly gay student body president.
Shirvell has called Armstrong a “dangerous homosexual ‘rights’ extremist,” pasted a rainbow flag and a swastika onto Armstrong’s photo, said he was “Satan’s representative on the student assembly,” accused him of being a “racist” with a “radical homosexual agenda,” and launched pretty much every other brazenly homophobic attack conceivable short of carrying signs that read “GOD HATES FAGS.”
Shirvell has videotaped Armstrong’s house, posted pictures and updates from Armstrong’s and his friends’ Facebook pages, targeted his friends and family, and shouted him down at student events. Let me emphasize that all Armstrong has done was to be openly gay, and express support for mixed-gender housing for queer students (which we have at NYU).
These are intolerably violent times to be gay in America. The fact that Shirvell only took a leave of absence raises questions about how law enforcement, by not appropriately cracking down on homophobia within its own ranks, might unintentionally but implicitly soften what would-be assailants perceive to be the ramifications of hate crimes against gays. As it were, homophobia is routinely overlooked in these cases: school officials ignore complaints about bullying, and then pretend it never happened after the kid shoots himself; police neglect to label something a “hate crime” after gay men are beaten and called “faggots.”
Shirvell defended his campaign against Armstrong’s “very, deeply radical homosexual agenda” on Anderson Cooper 360 last Wednesday (and not too gracefully, thanks both to his sheer idiocy and Cooper’s brilliant questioning), claiming that this was a “political campaign” that “wasn’t personal” and that he “wasn’t the only first person [sic] to criticize Chris.” More surprising were the comments made by Shirvell’s boss, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox (a Republican), who also appeared on the show. Cox said Shirvell was being “immature” but quickly rebuked any suggestions that Shirvell be fired, arguing that his actions took place outside of work and were therefore protected by the First Amendment.
As a journalism student, I’m all for freedom of speech. I strongly believe that disgusting, bigoted speech should be as well protected as courageous, respectable speech. But the issue here isn’t freedom of speech. The issue is whether permitting this kind of behavior from a government official — and one working for the state Justice Department, nonetheless — encourages broader, more aggressive patterns of homophobia.
Shirvell isn’t just making broad homophobic statements, which are bad enough. He’s personally targeting one specific gay student. There’s a clause in Michigan state law that says all civil workers can be punished for “conduct unbecoming a state employee.” That’s vague, but I’m quite sure that stalking and harassing a college student purely based on his sexual orientation is very clearly “unbecoming conduct.” The Michigan Daily, the University of Michigan’s campus newspaper, wrote in an editorial that this behavior prevents him from properly serving the public:
“His behavior does not stem from immaturity. It stems from hatred. And this type of hatred makes Shirvell unsuitable to remain a government official. It will affect his ability to interpret laws — which is the job of the attorney general’s office.”
And why hasn’t Attorney General Cox fired him? Andrew Sullivan responded with tremendous maturity. At a Michigan Student Assembly meeting, he announced, “I will not flinch. I will not falter. I will not succumb to any unwarranted personal attacks. What I will do is I will carry on with the utmost pride and vindication.” And students and faculty from the University of Michigan, as well as Armstrong’s supporters from across the country, have reacted tremendously to this farce.
But it cannot end there. The assaults and deaths of gay Americans cannot continue, and the government has to demonstrate that this kind of violence — and the attitudes that feed it — are unacceptable. Firing Andrew Shirvell from the post of Assistant Attorney General of Michigan is a necessary demonstration. Once he’s unemployed, he can blog about whatever he wants. And no one will care.