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Joy Geng: LGBTQ Activist

Jason A. Michael
By | 2018-03-27T13:14:54+00:00 March 21st, 2018|Michigan, News|

The year was 1991, and long-term plans were being set in motion. The Michigan Organization of Human Rights (MOHR) had created the MOHR Foundation as a separate legal entity to fight discrimination against the LGBTQ community. With this expansion, the next step was clear: buying an office space. After some searching, a dentist’s office on Seven Mile Road in Northwest Detroit became home base. And, before long, the Foundation had renamed itself the Lesbian and Gay Foundation of Michigan (LGFM).
On the board were Henry Messer, John Monahan and, at Messer’s urging, his next-door neighbor Joy Geng, a manager at Ford.
“Henry kind of bugged me until I gave in,” Geng said. “I had a more than full-time job at that time and I didn’t have a lot of extra time. I had a partner and a family. But he got me.”
Geng would become an integral member of the organization; staying with it through both glory and conflict. But, at the time, the hitch was that Geng was not yet out of her other job, so she joined the board under the name of Jay Grange. Then, she got to work.
“Our mission was primarily beginning to look at hate crimes,” Geng said. “At some point, and I don’t recall how, we got some money and we decided to call ourselves the Triangle Foundation. Then we realized we needed a staff.”
The board hired attorney Jay Kaplan as its first employee but the partnership was not meant to last. Kaplan left after only two weeks.
“I left on my own,” said Kaplan, “realizing that I was not up to the daunting task of running the organization.”
Next, the board hired a brash young activist named Jeffrey Montgomery.
“He turned out to be a great hire and Jay went on to do great things at the ACLU using his legal skills,” Geng said.
However, stuck in Geng’s craw is the widely-believed misinformation that Montgomery was a founder of the organization. He came close, but he wasn’t. Still, Montgomery wasted no time making an impact.
“He became the face of the organization,” Geng said. “We began receiving donations because of the work he was doing. So we had a little bit of money. When we did, our objective was to try to provide Jeff with some staff.”
Two of the most significant members the board approved were Sean Kosofsky, who joined in 1996 and was soon appointed director of policy, and Kevin McAlpine, who started in 1998 as director of development.
“It was Sean and Kevin that was really the foundation of the organizational staff,” said Geng. “Sean brought the activism and Kevin was a fund raiser. He really brought structure into the organization, both in terms of management and the staff, and the business and the finances.”

Coming Out
As Geng became more and more involved with Triangle, she found herself becoming more comfortable with herself.
“The process of coming out was one of the most wonderful things that happened to me,” Geng said. “When I did come out at Ford I had to tell my management and my employees. I had their full support. And the only comment that was made by one of the top VPs was, ‘Did I know Ellen Degeneres?’”
By then, Triangle was in the middle of its biggest growth spurt to date.
“I think after losing Prop 2 in 2004 there was a lot of interest in funding some of the organizations in the state and Triangle benefitted from that,” said Geng. “That really helped us to expand. The budget was significantly higher than it had ever been and we were able to hire more staff.”
At one point, Triangle had 13 full-time employees. But Geng wasn’t just around for the glory days, she was still there when the agency fell into decline.
Montgomery left amid scandal in 2007 and was replaced by Kate Runyon. Funding decreased, and Kosofsky and McAlpine both departed the agency in 2008. Geng was discouraged and actually left the board in disgust.
“I disagreed with the board on how Jeff’s departure was handled,” Geng said. “And I disagreed with the selection of his replacement, so I stepped off the board. Then, about six months later, Alicia Skillman was the executive director and she called me and asked me to come back.”

Community Infighting
Among all the tumult, members of the organization began to butt heads.
“One thing I was shocked at when I began my work with Triangle was how competitive our community was with each other,” said Geng. “So many different personalities, certainly with an interest in building power in organizations, an ‘I’m better than you’ kind of thing. And I think all of that created what I called “Mission Creep,” which is when everybody wanted to do everything. For example, I remember when Affirmations was seeking a 501(c)(4) so they could jump into politics.”
Also in the business of LGBTQ politics was Michigan Equality — an agency founded by Beth Bashert in 1999 that Geng said “directly competed with Triangle.”
“I’m sure to the legislative people we looked unorganized because we were carrying two different messages, and it hurt us,” Geng said. “I thought, ‘Good Lord, we’re all on the same team and we ought to be doing it together.’ So, I was shocked at how much energy the community wasted working against each other.”
And even though she asked Geng to come on, Skillman left the same year Triangle merged with Michigan Equality, taking on the new name Equality Michigan. Geng called the process of merging “very painful.” But funding was still down and staff turnover high.
After Skillman, the board hired Denise Brogan-Kator to lead the agency. Brogan-Kator became the agency’s first transgender executive director, but her tenure would end a mere 10 months later.
“When Denise left that was a blow,” said Geng. “Those circumstances are confidential, but it wasn’t expected. I remember the day after the press release was issued the executive director of Affirmations was at our back door wanting to come in and help us get back on track. That’s not what he wanted though. He wanted the business.”
Donations continued to drop and the agency was in a downward spiral.
“There were times when I wasn’t sure we were gonna be able to keep the doors open,” Geng said. “I think it was Dave Wait and I who were primarily the two people who supported us financially at that time. But we were determined to not let the organization fold.”
In 2013, Emily Dievendorf became the fifth executive director to lead the agency. Then, in 2014, Messer died. Dievendorf departed in 2015 and Stephanie White came onboard in her place.

 The Long Path to Stability
Today, nearly three years after White’s arrival, Geng decided the organization was on enough equal footing that she could feel comfortable stepping down from the board after 27 years of service. She credits White and the current board for making her comfortable with leaving.
“Stephanie has the communication skills that are necessary,” Geng said. “She has the ability to work with others in the community, and I simply felt comfortable with Stephanie and the board. They have been able to really focus on two main objectives: One is to amend Elliot Larsen — which may not happen ever — and the other is to continue to focus on hate crimes.”
As she leaves, Geng said she is unsure what her legacy will be.
“I think other people can determine that,” she said. “I think the one thing that I brought that wasn’t there initially and really hasn’t been until recently is some stability in terms of financial reporting and financial analysis. One of the important things that I think most non-profits don’t understand is that what they’re really doing is running a business. It’s a business, and they have a product and they have customers. You can’t do something unless you can pay for it, and you can’t pay for it unless you plan and you fundraise.”
But, even though Geng can’t say for certain what she will be remembered for, historian Tim Retzloff said that Geng’s contributions to Michigan’s LGBT community have been great.
“In nearly three decades of activism, Joy Geng has witnessed tremendous change in our community, and has been an agent of that change, both with her involvement with the Triangle Foundation/Equality Michigan, and her pioneering activism at Ford,” said Retzloff. “While her name might not be as well-known as those of Henry Messer and Jeffrey Montgomery, Joy Geng deserves to be recognized as a leader in the movement for social change.”

A Message for Posterity
Geng said her note to the next generation of leaders is that communication and partnership with community members is key.
“You have to agree on what your slice of the pie is, and focus on your slice of the pie and not anybody else’s slice of the pie. Keep it simple. Even the most complicated issues can be broken down into small pieces to sizes that are solvable,” she said.
In a 2005 interview with Between The Lines, Geng said she hoped to see the day when the LGBTQ community organizations were no longer needed and discrimination against LGBTQ people was a thing of the past. Now, as she retires from the Equality Michigan board she’s not quite so philosophical.
“I was dreaming,” said Geng. “Still, that’s a great answer and I would love to see all the organizations go out of business because we have no discrimination. We’ve worked so hard over the years. It seems we take two steps forward and then one step back. But I don’t think they’ll ever go away. We’re always going to need our organizations to support our needs and our rights.”

Tim Retzloff contributed to this article. He is an adjunct assistant professor of history and LGBT studies at Michigan State University.

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University before joining Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. Jason has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author having written the authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," which he released on his own JAM Books imprint.