Jay Kaplan named BTL’s Person of the Year for 2006

By | 2018-01-15T22:00:34-04:00 December 28th, 2006|News|

{SUBHEAD Community’s ‘gay crusader’ celebrated for his accomplishments, personality}

{ITAL Author’s note: I remember my first encounter with Between The Lines’ first-ever Person of the Year as if it happened yesterday. It was on a hot summer’s night in 1977 at Southfield-Lathrop High School where I was attending a performance of “Showboat” staged by a summer youth theater program. Of all the teenagers in the musical, one in particular caught my attention because of his enthusiasm and infectious energy. “Who is that?” I asked an adult associated with the program.
“That’s Jay Kaplan,” I was told. “He sure stands out, doesn’t he?”
He still does, almost 30 years later.}

DETROIT – If the LGBT community has a goodwill ambassador, it can only be Jay Kaplan.
“You never hear anyone say anything negative about Jay,” explained Susan Horowitz, co-publisher and editor-in-chief of Between The Lines. “In fact, he’s probably the most loved and respected of our community’s leaders – with accomplishments to back it up – and that’s why we chose him as our first-ever Person of the Year.”
Whether he’s in the courtroom fighting for our rights or singing on stage at one of our local community theaters, Kaplan, 46, is universally admired for his never-ending positive energy. “He is so incredibly nice,” said Triangle Foundation’s Director of Policy Sean Kosofsky. “Everyone I know loves Jay because he is sweet, always in a good mood, always smiling and always helpful.”
Of equal importance are Kaplan’s considerable achievements. “He’s an institution in our community; someone we can always count on,” added Craig Covey, CEO of the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project. “His work, particularly with the American Civil Liberties Union, has had continuous and far-reaching impact on the issues that affect our lives. His quiet and disarming demeanor belies the huge changes he’s helped make for LGBT people.”

The early years

Having a gay crusader in the family wasn’t on Phyllis Kaplan’s list of possible career paths for her young son. “We thought he’d be president,” she laughed while packing for a recent trip to Florida. “Because when he was about 8, he wrote a paper at school where there was the New Deal and the Fair Deal – and he was going to be president and have the Real Deal!”
Although that’s still a possibility, the adult Jay’s ambitions weren’t so lofty after law school.
“My goal was always to contribute something to society,” Kaplan explained from his office at the ACLU in Midtown Detroit where he serves as LGBT staff attorney. “I realized even in law school that I wanted to be involved in some kind of public service through law.”
Since Kaplan didn’t come out until his late 20s, gay issues weren’t initially a top priority. “I had other ideas of what I wanted to do. Maybe I wanted to be a social worker; corporate law didn’t interest me. But what I knew I wanted to do was be able to use legal knowledge as a way to help people who were either underprivileged or people who weren’t getting a fair shake.”
His first job found Kaplan representing indigent tenants, first in Jackson County, then in Detroit. “I think my starting salary was $14,000 a year. And it was funny: I remember I was able to make all my bills. It didn’t seem to be a problem.”
Later, while working at Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service, Kaplan became interested in HIV/AIDS legal issues. A grant from the Michigan AIDS Fund allowed him to establish Michigan’s first legal program for people living with HIV/AIDS. “I’m proud to say the program still exists 15 years later,” he said.
Kaplan has also served on the board of the Michigan AIDS Fund for the past 10 years.
Although he enjoyed his 13-year career at MPAS, Kaplan was increasingly drawn to civil rights work – especially towards issues facing the LGBT community. So when he heard the ACLU of Michigan had received a two-year grant to launch an LGBT project, he tossed his resume into the stack.
And life as he knew it was about to change.

It’s all about dignity

When Executive Director Kary L. Moss arrived at the local branch of the ACLU, the organization had no specific group dedicated to gay rights issues. “It wasn’t a strong organizational priority,” Moss recently told BTL. But it became one under her leadership.
Believing it was important to have a member of the LGBT community lead the project, Moss set about interviewing potential candidates once initial funding was secured. “My hope was that we’d find somebody who not only could be a litigator, but who would also be an effective public advocate.”
Kaplan was a perfect fit. “He came with a really good understanding about the need to use law to advance broad social change,” Moss said. “Additionally, he’s got such a laid-back, soft style that he’s especially effective with different kinds of people. But he’s also a fierce advocate.”
Since arriving at the ACLU in June 2001, Kaplan has been at the forefront of societal change in Michigan.
An early – but important – case involved suing the City of Detroit over its anti-gay undercover sting operations in Rouge Park. The lawsuit was eventually settled to the ACLU’s satisfaction.
Other battles involved transgender rights. In one case, a male-to-female transgender was barred from using a health club on the female-designated days. In another, Kaplan was successful in having spousal Social Security benefits restored to a male-to-female transgender. “We argued that when somebody undergoes this transition, it doesn’t void the legal marriage.”
A significant amount of Kaplan’s focus has been devoted to issues surrounding second parent adoptions involving same-sex couples. Recently, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that affirmed the permanence of such adoptions. In this specific case, the birth mother of twins filed a motion to dissolve her ex-partner’s adoption of their children, claiming it was illegal for unmarried couples to adopt. It’s sad when members of our community behave badly, Kaplan said. “What people don’t understand is when you bring an LGBT-related case to the court, what you’re doing is going to have an impact on hundreds of other families. We’re hoping that eventually we’ll get a law that specifically allows for second parent adoption [by LGBT couples], but until then, we’re seeing members of our community using this uncertainty as a way to harm each other. We’ve got to get people to focus on what’s most important, and that’s the kids. The kids should have two legal parents – and they should have the legal protection of both parents.”
Obtaining such adoptions has gotten tougher, however, thanks to a handful of justices on the Michigan Supreme Court who imposed their personal views on second parent adoptions within same-sex couples on the Washtenaw County court system. “It’s made it very difficult for gay and lesbian couples when they have children to have both parents [legally] recognized,” Kaplan explained. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of politics with our court system because our judges are elected, and sometimes politics gets in the way.”
The passage in 2004 of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Michigan is another hot-button issue on Kaplan’s plate. Although proponents originally claimed this was about protecting marriage and not taking away gay couples’ health insurance, domestic partner benefits offered by various state agencies are under attack. Although the ACLU was successful at the trail court level, Michigan’s attorney general has appealed the ruling. “But we’re prepared – if we don’t get a favorable decision – to appeal it to the Michigan Supreme Court,” Kaplan said. And if an unfavorable ruling is issued from the Supreme Court, the agency will look into federal challenges. “We feel very strongly about this.”
Kaplan’s passion towards his work is easily explained. “It really is a civil rights issue. It’s about whether or not a group of people deserve to be treated as second class citizens. Why should a group of people be denied the same rights and opportunities as other people? It’s about human dignity; it’s about treating people fairly.”

Personal spotlight
If the law is Kaplan’s vocation, theater is his avocation.
A singer and performer since childhood, the Southfield native can often be found on stage at community theaters throughout the area. “It’s always been a great interest and passion of mine,” Kaplan said. “It’s a real important outlet for me.”
Lately, however, he’s gravitated more towards directing than acting. His latest project is directing “Pal Joey” that opens Jan. 12 at the Village Players of Birmingham. “People recognize the name, but it’s not done often – and I’m beginning to understand why,” Kaplan laughed.
Kaplan also keeps up-to-date on what’s going on elsewhere in the world of theater. “His knowledge of theater just amazes me, especially musical theater,” said Michael A. Gravame, artistic director of The Actors’ Company. “He knows every show that ever played on Broadway or off, who starred in it, what songs are from it or what songs were cut, and how long it played. It amazes me how much he knows.”
One side of Kaplan most never see is the part of him that simply likes being a homebody. A recent homeowner – and single – Kaplan likes to cook and entertain friends. “I don’t know if I’m a GOOD cook, but I love to bake. But I end up eating the stuff, too. But it’s very relaxing.”
Given his busy schedule, it’s not easy for Kaplan to maintain a balanced life. “I’m interested in so many things, but sometimes you have to embrace the downtime. I’d like to do that a little more.”

The award
For someone so at ease standing before judges, anti-gay opponents, TV cameras and picky theatergoers, Kaplan becomes uncomfortable when the spotlight is turned on his personal accomplishments. “I’m kind of shy in that respect,” he quietly admitted. “It’s very nice, but I’m always afraid somehow I’m going to let somebody down.”
So while he’s very flattered and proud to be BTL’s first-ever Person of the Year, he’s also somewhat embarrassed by it. “Can I live up to this? Do I deserve it? It’s the little insecurities I have as a person.”
Kaplan’s boss, however, couldn’t be happier. “There are so many unsung heroes out there, and it’s wonderful to see him win,” Moss said. “I feel very proud that somebody working at the ACLU is winning, as it is a recognition-of-sorts that the resources we put into our work is recognized as valuable to the GLBT community. So I’m very proud.”
So, too, is Mama Kaplan. “We’re always proud of Jay. He’s pretty modest, so we’re pleased that people recognize that he tries to be a good and decent person and help other people. So we’re happy.”
Deep down, so, too, is Kaplan. “It makes me feel that I DO have a purpose, and that the work I’m doing DOES count.
“And it’s always nice to have that recognized.”

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