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“I was in the closet most of my life,” said Joy Geng, 60, of Dearborn. A member of the Triangle Foundation’s board of directors for the past 15 years, when she first joined the group she did so using an alias.
“I was on the board under the name ‘Jay Grange,'” she said. “You can probably still find some letterhead that has that on it. And that’s because I was frightened because I worked at Ford and I was frightened for my career. Ford is a male-oriented manufacturing company and I think it’s very difficult in that environment for people to come out.”
Geng was encouraged to join the Triangle board by her next-door neighbor, fellow board member and longtime activist Henry Messer.
“Certainly Henry was an influence,” Geng recalled. “I wanted to learn how I could help the community. I wasn’t quite ready to be out, but I wanted to help the community and by helping the community it helped me. I gained more strength and I was more comfortable within my own skin. And the more comfortable I became the more active I became.”
She became so comfortable that eventually, in 1997, Geng came out as a lesbian in the Ford worldwide employee newspaper. At that time manager of Ford’s retirement and savings plans, Geng was the highest salary grade active management employee to come out.
“That was the time that I knew I was ready to risk my job, my life, everything for the cause and for the young people,” Geng said. “I really did it for the young people. I had calls and comments and letters from people from all over the world. I had about 100 people working for me at that time, and I can’t think of one person who didn’t acknowledge that.”
Today, Geng is retired. But instead of gardening or travel, she spends most of her time on her LGBT rights and animal rights activism.
“What I really try to do with new organizations that evolve is when they don’t have finance expertise and they don’t know how to get their 501c3s and do some of the accounting and those kinds of things, I make myself available to them to help them,” said Geng. “I get them started and then teach them how to keep it up. So that’s another way that I can help move the movement forward. I would only do that for LGBT groups or animal rights groups. I won’t do it for any other reason. I won’t do it for money. I do it for the cause.”
Geng’s latest “for the cause” effort is joining the Strategic Planning Task Force. Developed from work by Project YES, the task force is working to research and assist all our statewide organizations by evaluating strengths and weaknesses and coming up with a coordinated strategy for working to achieve full civil rights of Michigan’s LGBT community.
“Two of the people on that team are Ford people, young Ford people, who probably would not have come to Ford if they did not have domestic partner benefits,” Geng said. “So I kind of see that as a little bit of the fruit of my labor and I was thrilled to see them there.”
Actually, Geng is just thrilled to be there herself, and to being doing something to combat the wave the compassionless conservatism washing over the country.
“We lost in November, that’s what really lit the fire in my belly,” said Geng. “I think if we don’t do something new and different and big and radical, we’re going to lose again and we’re going to keep losing. And we need to start changing that momentum.”
“They’ve got us on the run and we’re reacting to whatever they do,” Geng continued. “We have to get out ahead of that and have them react to us. We need to find out how to frame things differently. We’re always probably going to have to fight their negative rhetoric but we need to somehow get out ahead of that. I think the real way to do it is people need to tell their stories. They need to come out to their friends. People need to know that they know gay people and those gay people are good.”
Once enough people know that, Geng will be free to get back to gardening.
“I’d like to see all of our LGBT organizations have to go out of business because they’re not needed,” she said.