A chat with activist, gay rights champion Jim Toy

On discovering his identity and what continues to drive his activism

(Photo: Filmic Productions)

ANN ARBOR – The name Jim Toy is synonymous with the gay rights movement in Michigan.

He was the first man in the state to publicly come out during an anti-Vietnam war rally in Detroit in 1970, the first person to establish a staffed sexual orientation support office at a university and in the world, The Spectrum Center, and was the driving force behind changing the University of Michigan's nondiscrimination bylaw to include sexual orientation.

Both the library at The Spectrum Center and the Jim Toy Community Center in Kerrytown are named after him. He has founded countless gay rights and support organizations around the state of Michigan and continues to be active in the Ann Arbor community at the age of 87. 

We sat down with him to hear his story.

Tell me about your early years and your upbringing. 

“I grew up in Ohio in a village permeated with every '–ism' that one could imagine, and of course, I absorbed all of them. I didn’t know any better. So it’s been a piece of work for me to try to at least address them because they’re all down in my gut. And as I say, every possible '–ism': racism, sexism, classism, but I had no notion of that time of concerns about sexual orientation.”

When was it that you knew? 

“It was a really slow process. This would have been in the 1930s or 1940s where there was no discussion -- at least that I was aware of -- of sexual orientation, still less any awareness of what we now refer to as gender identity or gender expression; not a clue. I just learned by growing up in that village in Ohio in the ‘30s and ‘40s that female people and male people were expected to pair off and get legally married, and then have kids and just move along. 

"I had a girlfriend in high school. She was a member of the Episcopal church that we both went to. I was not especially sexually attracted to her, however, I didn’t have a clue, because there was no discussion of homosexuality or the range of sexual orientation. So, I went onto college in the same village, had a girlfriend there. Scarcely at all sexually attracted to her, but again, there was never any discussion. And so (I) graduated from college in 1951. Went abroad for two years to work in French public schools, came back to Manhattan, where I had to work for two years. I was a conscientious objector -- refusing to be drafted -- I had to do two years of alternative service. So I was posted to a clerking job in a blood bank in lower Manhattan. 

"I had the day off in 1954 in the summer. It was hot and sticky. I went to the public pool in Greenwich village not far from where I lived and the water was too warm. So, I hauled myself out and sat on the deck. And a guy hauled himself out and sat on the deck and said something to the effect of, ‘It’s too hot to swim -- you want to go get a Coke?’ Well, I didn’t know anybody in Manhattan except my cousin. And I was lonely so I said, 'Sure.' We hiked not far to a café and we sit down, and the first thing the guy said to me, aside from exchanging names was, ‘How long have you been gay?’

"And I said, ‘What?’ He repeated, ‘How long have you been gay?’ And I said, ‘Honestly, I don’t know what you’re talking about’ So he rolled his eyes and said, ‘Yes, you know.’ It took me 10 minutes to convince him that I did not have a clue. So he sat me down over three years (laughs) and tried to convince me that I was gay."

"I get up there and I speak out against the war. What moved me to do it, I do not know. I said: ‘My name is Jim Toy, I’m 40 years old, and I’m a gay man."

Were you in a relationship?

"No, we were friends. After three years, I get a letter from an Episcopal priest in Detroit whom I had known when I was in high school and college, saying, ‘Would you come and take the music program at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Detroit?’

"I moved to Detroit in 1957. There, I met a young woman in the choir, really attractive, and we got married." 

So after three years your friend couldn’t convince you?

"I said to him at the end of three years, ‘Well Peter, I might be bisexual’ -- as many a gay man has done, does now and will do in the future. Because homosexuality is still not up there in the approval range in the spectrum of sexual orientation. It’s tolerated, I guess I would put it that way, nationally. But I wouldn’t say it’s totally accepted, approved of, or advocated for."

Video of Jim's legacy and the Spectrum Center's 40th Anniversary (Credit: Filmic Productions)

So you got married. Try to go back to the time that was happening. Was it out of emotion and connection with this person, or was it for approval and just going along with what society expected of you?

"I think both, thank you, that’s a helpful question. So we get married. We were married for six years." 

Why did it end?

"Well, being totally in the closet, I was basically uncommunicative and Janet got -- understandably -- frustrated with that. So she filed for, what was in those years and may still exist in Michigan, she filed for an ‘amicable’ or ‘no fault’ divorce, and I had to pay $1 in symbolic damages. So we parted, I guess I would put it amicably. She had a relationship on the rebound, then moved East and got a job, first in New England and later in Manhattan."

You are newly divorced. How soon was it after your divorce that you started to understand and accept these feelings?

"We’re now going to go forward until 1969 in December … part of my job at the church was to type up the worship bulletin and put a list of events that people might be interested in attending.

"So, I’m looking at the church calendar and there’s a penciled note next to it, and it said ‘Gay Meeting, January 1970’. So, I symbolically scratched my head because there had never been in Michigan an open above-ground advertised ‘Gay’ meeting.

"This is the tag end of the radical era. So I go to the priest, radical years, radical vocabulary, and said ‘Dadeeyo,’ which is what we called him, ‘What is this Gay Meeting thing that’s on the calendar?’ and he said, ‘Oh, yes, one of the guys in the draft resistance group asked if they could have a gay meeting here at the Godbox’ -- which is what we called the church.

"And I said, ‘Well whatever that is,’ because it was unforeseen, unprecedented, unique.

"I’m living in Ann Arbor because I’m in the music school, working on a doctorate, not really committed to it. I cracked open my closet door enough to go down to the gay bar -- it was called The Flame. Down there is my good buddy, John, who, like me, is totally in the closet.

"So I say to him, ‘There’s a gay meeting down at the Godbox,’ and he said, ‘What are you talking about?’ We looked at each other and we said, ‘Should we go?’ It was a month away. Finally, the night before the meeting, we get together at the bar and we looked at each other and went, ‘Oh no, if we go that means we’re gay.’

"Next day we hop in John’s car and drive into Detroit to the church and there are maybe a dozen women and men there, all as nervous, excited and puzzled as we were. And we talked for hours. We decided to keep on meeting and we decided to call ourselves the Detroit Gay Liberation Movement. We had seen somewhere that there was a Gay Liberation Front in Manhattan, but ‘Front’ was too radical for Detroit. John and I would trek in there in his car two to three times a week, which got stale. 

"We said, ‘Why don’t we start a group in Ann Arbor?’ So we put out an ad in The Daily and we held the first meeting, to which there came maybe 100 people. In my experience groups start big and they often dwindle. We did indeed dwindle maybe down to 30-40 and we kept on meeting. We were the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front."

So we’re in 1970. And this year was the culmination of your life, wasn’t it?

"Well, I did not realize it. In April of 1970 there is an anti-Vietnam war rally in Detroit. April 15, 1970. And the Detroit Gay Liberation Front, along with other radical groups in Detroit, we all were invited to march down Woodward Avenue from the Museum of Art by Wayne State, to march down to Kennedy Square and downtown Detroit, and have an anti-Vietnam war rally.

"And each group was invited to have a speaker. One of our guys said he’d speak, so we trekked down and we got to Kennedy Square and the groups started sending their speakers up to the speaker’s platform. And our guy looked around at us and said, ‘I’m not going up there,’ and we said ,‘What?’ and he said, ‘I’m not going up there, I’m not going to talk today’ and he walked away.
So we looked at each other and thought, ‘Well someone’s gotta talk’.

"And finally I said, 'OK.' I had a yellow pad, why? I don’t know I guess I was taking notes. 

"So I scribbled whatever I scribbled and I got myself up to the speaker’s platform and to the podium -- I had never talked in public in my life -- it was like fire and ice, I can feel it now; woo! 

"I get up there and I speak out against the war. What moved me to do it, I do not know. I said: ‘My name is Jim Toy, I’m 40 years old, and I’m a gay man.’

"Well, naïve me, I hadn’t thought about newspaper reporters and the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, they wrote articles and of course, it went everywhere.

"The articles that the Free Press and News wrote got ultimately syndicated across the United States. So, I was effectively out of the closet and that did that."

Did your family know?

"That’s how they found out. Somebody in the family saw the article." 

How did your family react?

"My parents never said anything about anything. That was that dynamic. But they weren’t condemning by any means. And my sibs were always more outgoing, and they’ve been supportive ever since. 

"More and more allies came forward. Some of them were quiet and some of them were outspoken. 
We, the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front, we got a letter from (University of Michigan's) then-president Robben Fleming, asking us to come to a Regents Meeting to explain what Gay Liberation wanted. At that time, tag-end of the radical years, there’d been lots of student protests and unrest on campus.

"So, I went to the Gay Liberation Front and said, ‘The Regents want us to come and tell them what we want. Who’s going to go?’ and they looked at me and said, ‘You are.’"

I’m so grateful to our allies because queer people are maybe 5% of the population, and without allies where would we be? Nowhere.

So it wasn’t necessarily about acceptance, it was about ‘what kind of ruckus are you going to cause on campus’?

"Exactly. There were the women’s organizations, there was SDS and student riots. 

"So, I went to the Regent’s meeting and in those days it was easy, you walked in the door. So, it was totally full, nowhere to sit. They all looked at me, and I said, ‘I’m Jim Toy from Gay Liberation. We were invited to explain what Gay Liberation wants.’ So president Fleming, always courteous in public, stood up from his chair and said, ‘Mr. Toy please have my chair.’

"So I sat in the president’s chair, and said, ‘In essence, we want justice. And that would mean trained counselors to work with people who are concerned about their sexual orientation. We need additions to the curriculum, we need support for student groups, and we need an expansion of the university’s nondiscrimination bylaw so that gay people are protected from discrimination.’

"The training of counselors was relatively easy. They didn’t get in the way of student groups, but the bylaw -- ha! The bylaw expansion (took) 20 years. 

"They approved the hiring of two people to staff at quarter-time salaries a student office, comparable to the office for black students and the office for women students. That was the first office in the world (of its kind), let alone in the United States. So they hired Cynthia Gair and me to staff the office. Fall of ’71 we opened up.

"They kept us at quarter-time salaries for seven years. Most of our allies in the community, the visible ones being religious leaders, they got the university administration to raise us to half-time salaries. Ten years later, they went back and said, ‘These people have been working their tails off – make them full time.’ So, it took 17 years to get to full time, but we got there."

What kind of work were you doing? You were training counselors? Speaking to students who were concerned?

"Yeah, and we were speaking to classes. We established a speaker’s bureau and we trained the speakers over time.

"The expansion of the bylaw took two decades because of the opposition of one of the regents, Deane Baker, now deceased. He totally opposed the expansion of the bylaw, and always spoke out using biblical text to support his position. He attended First Presbyterian Church, as I recall.
Finally in 1992, elected to the Board of Regents were two really liberal people. Rebecca McGowan and Laurence Deitch. Somehow, they convinced all the other regents except Regent Baker to formally expand the bylaw to include sexual orientation as a protected class.

"So, I get a call one morning, from whom I don’t remember, said, 'Get your butt over to the regent’s meeting, they’re going to expand the bylaw.’ In any event, I hiked over with another friend and the agenda item came to the floor. President Duderstadt said something like, ‘We now come to the issue of the nondiscrimination bylaw to include sexual orientation’ -- immediately Regent Baker raised his hand. 

"And as he’s done forever, for 20 years, regent Baker spoke out against this change. 

"He was sitting across the big Regents table from regent Deitch, and regent Deitch had been staring at him during his whole tirade. Regent Deitch slammed his fists on the table -- big table, big room, big noise -- and said, ‘Deane. The only reason we’ve wasted two decades on this concern is because you and your obsession!’

"I wish there was a tape of that (laughs). Well, it was the birthday of my life. That was the highlight of my advocacy."

What I try to do is work with the individual that I’m in dialogue with to look at their concerns and look at their goals, helping them be clear that their goals are practical and are capable of achievement and expressed in tangible terms, so that when they reach their goal, they know that they have gotten there.

What’s your approach been, when you talk to people who don’t necessarily want to listen, as the face of the gay community? 

"I’ve toned down over the years. (In) 1970 I was in your face, to use that term. And predictably, I learned over time, it’s the honey and vinegar thing (that gets you) further if you’re polite. And so, I, over the years, attempted to be more appropriate in my approach."

I want to hear what Ann Arbor means to you, why you stayed, and why it was important for you to make a difference in this town.

"Ann Arbor, for me, as it is for many people, is a liberal oasis. Similar in some ways to East Lansing, where a diversity of opinion is welcomed and, to some degree, is supported. And so-called radical issues are lifted up and advocated for with support from a large number of allies. I’m so grateful to our allies because queer people are maybe 5 percent of the population, and without allies where would we be? Nowhere."

So much has changed in your lifetime. Going from a place in Ohio and you didn’t even know what being gay was, to becoming this incredible champion of gay rights and setting the bar for so many people around the world. Do you think that there’s still more to change?

"Many of us now are working on transgender concerns and that issue is -- for many of us -- in the forefront of our work. I do what I can to support that movement. I do identify as male, however, transgender people endure an incredible amount of harassment and denial of their human and civil rights. Ann Arbor is supportive of that movement as well."
If you could now, in some sense, go back in time, and have a conversation with yourself -- the 20-something student that you were, dating girls, and not knowing what was ahead of you, what would you say? What would your advice be for someone who is scared and not sure of what they’re feeling?

"Let’s look at that word: Advice. I’m glad you used it. I don’t give advice would be, and is, my response. If the person who I’m talking with follows my advice and it works out, who gets the credit? Me. And if it doesn’t work out, who gets the blame? Me.
"What I try to do is work with the individual that I’m in dialogue with to look at their concerns and look at their goals, helping them be clear that their goals are practical and are capable of achievement and expressed in tangible terms, so that when they reach their goal, they know that they have gotten there.

"Goals cannot be cast in terms of feelings because feelings are totally mutable, changeable. So, I would say to myself in the 40s and 50s, ‘Had you known then what you may know now, what would you have done?’"

Finally, are you ever going to officially retire? 

"When I die, sure!

"In 2008, my boss said, 'We need to have a talk. You need to retire.’ At that point I was 78. And he said, ‘You’ve got three choices. You can officially retire, you can do it in stages, and if you officially retire or do it in stages, you’ll retain all your benefits. If you don’t, we will retire you and you won’t have benefits’. So I quit working at the university and I don’t call it retirement, I call it advancement. I advanced from university employment.
"I unofficially work with the university and the community with so many allies. And I have an analogy: In the tapestry of my identity, being Episcopalian is a thread, being a social worker is another thread, being in good health is another thread, and so forth and so forth. And if anyone plucks at any of those threads, my whole fabric moves, it has to, because everything’s interconnected.

"In any community, there are all of these individual threads, each of which has a sub-thread. We’re all connected in whatever we do."

To learn more about Toy and how you can get involved, visit the Jim Toy Community Center's website.

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About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.