His self-edited bio reads that he’s originally from New York. It’s a line that’s partially true at best.
“I was born in New York in Manhattan and my mother died when I was born,” explained longtime gay and civil rights activist Jim Toy. “So my dad moved us to Ohio to live with my grandparents.”
He lived in Ohio until he graduated from Denison University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1951. Then he moved to France for two years before returning to his birthplace.
“I was a conscientious objector and I had refused to register for the draft,” Toy recalled. “I had to do a two-year alternative service. So after France I moved back to Manhattan and worked as a clerk in a blood bank.”
In 1957, he came to Detroit at the invitation of an Episcopal priest he had known. He was invited to become the minister of music at St. Joseph’s. Shortly afterward he met a woman and was married.
“After a couple of years we decided I should go to graduate school,” said Toy. “That would have been 1960. I rented a room in Ann Arbor and I would live there during the week and then I would go back to Detroit for the weekend.”
Toy went on to earn a master’s degree in clinical social work from the University of Michigan. He remained married until 1966.
“I was totally in the closet and my communication with my wife consequently was worse than zero,” said Toy. “So Janet understandably got totally frustrated and filed for divorce. In Michigan it used to be a called a no-fault divorce and I had to pay $1 in symbolic damages.”
Coming Out to the World
By this time, the war in Vietnam was raging. Toy had moved on from conscientious objector to protestor. And it was at an anti-war rally in Detroit that he surprised himself by coming out. He swears, though, that it was totally unplanned.
“I was speaking out against the Vietnam War and suddenly I said, ‘My name is Jim Toy, I’m 40 years old and I’m a gay man.’ What prompted me to do that I cannot say. I had not thought about it in advance. The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News had reporters there and they wrote up the rally. They mentioned me and that I was gay so I was out of the closet publicly,” said Toy.
The year was 1970. The uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York – often referred to as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement – had taken place less than 12 months before.
Suddenly out, Toy wasted no time in getting to work on gay rights. He was a founding member of both the Detroit Gay Liberation Movement and the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front. In 1971, he helped establish the Human Sexuality Office at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The HSO was the first staff office in a U.S. institution of higher learning, and presumably the first of its kind in the world, to respond to sexual-orientation concerns. Toy served as its co-coordinator and gay male advocate from 1971 until 1994.
Upon coming out, it was at the HSO where Keith Orr met Toy for the first time in the early 80s.
“I had access to invaluable programs and attended sessions with a bunch of other gay people, some of my best friends. I was not alone, especially back then when coming out was difficult for everybody…it can still be a challenge for a variety of reasons, some situations more than others…Jim created such an affirming atmosphere,” said Orr, who co-owns the Aut Bar and Common Language Bookstore in Ann Arbor with his longtime partner Martin Contreras.
“Martin and I often refer to him – when we hear younger people who don’t know who he is say, ‘There’s actually a person named Jim Toy’ – that he is our own Harvey Milk,” said Orr. He remembers a few marches down Woodward with only a couple hundred people at the time including Toy, who was known for “getting cheers going.”
Still, Orr said, Toy is “encouraging to everybody. I can’t remember him ever telling somebody, ‘Oh, that’s a bad idea.’ He’s a swing his fist, way to go kind of guy. It’s pretty amazing.”
In 1971, Toy was appointed a founding member of the Diocesan Commission on Homosexuality by Bishop Richard Emrich of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan. The following year he co-authored the first official Lesbian Gay Pride Week Proclamation for the Ann Arbor City Council.
1971 was a significant year for Toy. He also founded the Ann Arbor Gay Hotline and would go on to serve as its coordinator and trainer until 1985.
By the mid-80s, the gay rights movement was facing perhaps its greatest threat to date: the AIDS crisis. Toy was active from the start.
“When we first became aware of it three of us social workers got together at a local restaurant and said, ‘What are we going to do about this?'” Toy remembered. “We were all members of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in Ann Arbor. So we organized an educational effort and we had become aware of what was then called Wellness Networks Detroit. We said we better have something like that in Ann Arbor so we organized. We called ourselves Wellness Networks Washtenaw.
Then Patrick Yankee, according to Toy, who was a leader within the group, said “let’s get real and call ourselves who we are” about what became the HIV/AIDS Resource Center.
“Some of us were apprehensive that people would not write checks to an organization that mentioned AIDS,” Toy continued.
“I understood the hesitation,” said Yankee, the chief development officer at the Corktown Health Center in Detroit.
“Yet I believed our name had to be an honest reflection of our mission. In my view, the original name was fine to begin with, but it seemed to emphasize this sense of secrecy so common at that time. If we did not come out about HIV, who was going to?”
Yankee notes that Toy was involved in every important decision about community-based HIV care and treatment back then.
“I can’t imagine that time without the benefit of Jim’s great knowledge, boundless compassion, and dedication,” he said.
Toy is a founding member of the Washtenaw County LGBT Retirement Center Task Force, PFLAG/Ann Arbor, GLSEN/Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Area, Transgender Advocacy Project, American Friends Service Committee Inclusive Justice Program, Washtenaw Faith Action Network,
Ypsilanti Human Rights PAC, Ypsilanti Rainbow Neighbors and the Out Loud Chorus.
In the early 90s, Toy co-founded the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project, the premier resource center in the Washtenaw County area that exists to provide information, education, social events, and advocacy by and for the LGBT and allied community. And in 2010, WRAP was renamed The Jim Toy Community Center in his honor.
“That came up for a vote and I opposed the motion,” said Toy. “I said if we’re going to name our center after somebody let it be named, for example, for Harvey Milk or Audre Lorde. Don’t name it after me. But I was outvoted. It was a humbling experience.”
Sandi Smith, associate broker and president of Trillium Real Estate in Ann Arbor, served on the WRAP board with Toy, 15 years after they met while Smith was a student at the UM.
“He was the co-founder of the Lesbian and Gay Program office, and I was curious,” she said. “Jim has always quietly and persistently challenged the artificial boundaries of language and gender.”
Today, Toy remains as active as ever. His archives are housed in the James Toy Collection at the UM’s Bentley Historical Library. The HSO that Toy helped found, now named the Spectrum Center, named its library in Toy’s honor. The Jim Toy Library currently hosts a collection of over 1500 titles and supports LGBT student development.
So how does Toy do it? How does he maintain his enthusiasm and continue to work so hard?
“My secret is I’m stubborn,” he said. “If things were changeable I’d have softened my tone over the decades. I used to run my mouth in an acerbic way. Through the years I’ve realized you get more with honey than vinegar. If things were changeable I would have spoken more benignly than I did way back when. But we are who we are. I’m glad I learned over the years to tone it down.”
And when Toy does slow down and retire, how would he like to be remembered?
“As worker for justice,” said Toy. “As a worker for the human and civil rights for all who did what he could with the support of hundreds of thousands of others.
“I am so grateful to everybody who has helped in this struggle,” said Toy, who was invited to speak at the UM’s annual Lavender Graduation ceremony this week to honor LGBTQ and ally students and to acknowledge their achievements and contributions to the university.
“In my speech I’ll say, ‘We’re climbing the mountain of justice hand in hand’ and we’re going to keep on doing that.”