Deborah Holdship: Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, Editor of Michigan Today. Today my guest is University Librarian Scott Dennis, who is here to share some insights about his dear friend – the celebrated human rights activist Jim Toy.
Jim passed away Jan. 1, 2022, at age 91 leaving a tremendous legacy across our campus, our city, and our state. He was a founding member of the Detroit Gay Liberation Front and he gained acclaim in 1970 at a Vietnam War protest in Detroit when he came out publicly — cementing his image as an outspoken queer — an Asian American and a fierce champion for human rights. And he never stopped.
Jim got his master’s in clinical social work at U-M. In 1971 he helped establish the university’s Human Sexuality Office — later becoming the Spectrum Center — the country’s first campus office dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ students. In 1972, he co-authored the “Lesbian-Gay Pride Week Proclamation,” making the Ann Arbor City Council the first governing body of its kind in the nation to officially recognize Gay Pride.
Ann Arbor also is home to the Jim Toy Community Center, which for more than 25 years has served the LGBTQ+ community. Or should I say TLGBQ+, which was how Jim Toy was re-ordering the acronym most recently. Trans issues were top of mind for him late in life, as were issues surrounding gay youth and the elderly.
Jim also was deeply religious and was active in the EPISCOPAL CHURCH. In 2019, he was seated as Canon Honorary at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Detroit.
Jim Toy was many things to many people. To Scott Dennis, Jim was the kind and understanding man who answered the local gay hotline when the boy was just a teen. Of course, Jim had co-founded the hotline. He helped facilitate a support group for Scott and other gay teens – in the 70s — becoming a mentor and good friend to Scott and his whole family.
Jim achieved so much in his life. He founded numerous organizations and contributed to countless causes. He changed sso many people’s lives it’s hard to comprehend. I suggest you look at the links in the show notes to take a deep dive into his professional legacy.
I regret that never met Mr. Toy (as Scott affectionately calls him) but I did attend his TedX presentation at U-M in 2012. It was called “Transforming Societal Paradigms.” The audio you will hear comes from that speech. Scott’s audio comes from Zoom and I apologize in advance.
Here’s Jim. May he rest in power.
Scott Dennis: I’ve never known anyone who more lived real Christian values in everything he did. The whole way he lived his life. And like, you know, so many people profess these values, but you know, I mean, they’re hard values to live up to.
He was in the Episcopal Church his whole life. And he worked for a church in Detroit in the 60s during the Civil Rights era. And he was so instrumental in the Episcopal Church in advancing LGBT causes. In 2019, he was given the Episcopal Church’s highest honor for a lay person, which is to be made an honorary cannon in the cathedral in Detroit, and his name is carved into a seat at the altar there.
When he was first speaking up on LGBT stuff in the Episcopal Church in the early ’70s — just horrible stuff was said about and done with him. He was kicked out of things he was, you know he was very, very badly treated. He was a follower of Martin Luther King. And I literally mean that literally in 1963 when Dr. King was here, you know, Jim was involved in a church, you know, in Detroit, and he was, you know, he marched not very far behind Dr. King in the 1963 in the march that was sort of the precursor to the, you know, Washington DC March where he gave the first version of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and Mr. Toy was, was there for all of that and was I mean, I had admired him, and so was a follower of him.
I never have known anyone quite like him, you know, and I don’t think there are many like him that just live to totally live your values in this way, and to have the vision he had in the daring he had.
He admitted to being nervous before he did certain things. Like when he came out for the first one, he was the first person in Michigan to in a public sort of political way, come out. But he, he would just kind of decide I have to do this. And then he would do it.
Whenever you come out, you have an adolescence, basically. And I got to have mine when I was actually an adolescent. And so many men my age and older, and women have people I’ve have not had that chance.
He, he became friends to my parents, he helped my parents be cofounders of the first PFLAG chapter in Ann Arbor, which I think was in the first one in the state. That was again in the early ’80s Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, it was called.
I mean, he was absolutely a mentor and almost like a third parent to me in many ways. But he was also just a really close friend. And we did so many things together. We took trips together. We went every year to the Stratford Festival, he’s such a wonderful lover of the arts, I went to so many concerts with him. He had a degree in French, as well as in music. He was a big vinophile you know, he I learned all about wine from him, fine wine and all that he lived very frugally. But one of the few things he would splurge on was fine wine and dining.
For Dennis, the friendship with Toy was essential. As a gay teen, he needed help navigating the landscape. The advice Toy gave at his TedX event is something he probably told a lot of young gay people.
SD: I ended up coming out to my parents while I was still in high school, before I moved away. And that never would have happened without Mr. Toy’s support. Especially at this time, the most common thing was gay kids growing up would not come out until they left their families, usually till they often if they went to college, like I was going to do, that’s when they maybe they do it then or even later.
In almost all other minorities — racial minorities, ethnic minorities, religious minorities — you’re part of that minority, because your family, But by and large, you know, when you’re LGBT, others, it there’s no guarantee that it’s more likely that, you know, no one else in your family will be or, or not everyone in your family will be or whatever, that’s really common.
And so that is something, you know, we talk about chosen families, and we’ve, you know, LGBT community been building chosen families for a long time. And I got to be in I got to be in Jim’s chosen family, which was, you know, a really wonderful thing. To have someone you could turn to and you know, who would give you advice, and that’s just super important.
SD: SD: I think it’s fair to say that he was an institutionalist. He believed in these larger institutions, like universities, like organized religions. He didn’t give up on them, just because they were just because they had legacies of oppression. And he believed in changing organizations and institutions from within. And I think his career shows all that can be achieved by doing that.
And he absolutely embraced the external activism and all of that. He absolutely thought that was crucial and nothing could happen without that. But he also, I think, believed that these things that that that these institutions could be transformed from inside as well as from external pressure, and that you really needed both, and that it was by doing both that you could achieve the most. And I think that I think that is, I think his life’s work and legacy demonstrate that.
It certainly would have been possible for him to be fired, and I think he nearly was multiple times. But he knew just how to walk that line so that he could, you know, apply the most internal pressure, but not so much that the whole thing blew up and no more progress was made.
And that’s where I think he was so masterful. And I think a lot of the other you know, a lot of the women who worked beside him as lesbian advocates and things like that, would tell you, they learned a lot about how to do that. I mean, he would say he learned from them. And I know he did. But I think they also learned from him and because he had been over the over the years, he really learned how to how to make these things happen.
DH: In this next clip, recorded for the Spectrum Center’s Oral History project,Toy recalls his early attempts at organizing a campus conference designed for gay students. The University was not having it.
SD: I was a student activist, and at my college it was called the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, Gala. But he was insisting that it would be lesbian and gay. And that was actually, people like him doing that as what led it to be LGBT, as opposed to, or LGBT, you know, the lesbian coming first. And then he just carried on with that. And when trans issues, you know, he was always attuned to who was being left behind who did not really have their full rights yet, and he was so committed to that.
And he also had a very deep understanding. He gave me this thing years ago, which said, and he talked to me about how the root of all of homophobia is really sexism. It’s really about gender roles and define your gender roles and not following gender roles. And of course, that’s the same thing with transphobia. It’s the same thing. It’s really the sexism. So he had this deep understanding of how everything was connected about how, you know, if you are going to be a gay rights person, by extension, you had to be a feminist, you had to be a for civil rights for all people, regardless of race or ethnicity. These were all interlinked, you know, in his mind, and he understood that at a very deep level, and he and he saw that, and so he was always just trying to, so he very purposely, and what’s amazing, the other thing that I think he understood what so many people didn’t, is, these small things can make a difference in the long run, like the order of the letters in an acronym. But by just doing that, she would constantly get asked by people, especially by you know, things like reporters and stuff like wait, why isn’t it LGBT? Why would you say TBL G.
And then he would explain it, it would give an opportunity to talk about it would be it would cause the transition to get talked about, which was his goal. And that over time, that makes the difference. And I think he understood, he was at the same time that he was stubborn, and he would describe himself as impatient. But he clearly exhibited the patience of Job the number of times I mean, I heard another Episcopal priest say, the number of times that he calmly and patiently came to the doors of whatever church gathering and had them slammed in his face again, and again and again and again, and he never stopped and he never stopped having the grace. You it just it was the patience of Job as this priest said. There’s just no other way to describe. And he said, and he understood that that’s part of it. That’s part of how you make the change happen for little things, sticking to them, never letting go never and yet, keeping your humanity keeping your openness to all people being fair to all people, even the people who disagree with you, even the people who are really mistreating you, you know, it was you stand up to them, but you acknowledge their humanity at the same time that you do that. So just a real humanitarian.
SD: He didn’t really believe that he was ever retired. He was advanced. He advanced from the university to — he had an office at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor, which was the office of the Oasis LGBT ministry, which he helped found. And he kept working at that, right till the end. And that sort of broadened into an organization called inclusive justice. And it’s an interfaith organization.
None of us knew all that he was doing. And as I’ve seen all this reportage since his passing, like, I didn’t realize how much Asian American civil rights work he had done.
And in particular, you know, I know that one thing he was thinking about was the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act getting including LGBT protections in the Michigan Civil Rights Law, which is called the Elliot Larson Civil Rights Act. And that was certainly a long time ago. I mean, that’s been a goal. He’s worked with other people in the state on for just decades. And unfortunately, it’s still not happened after decades. But you know, he was he was dogged, you know, he started working on getting the nondiscrimination clause in the regions by law. Back in the 70s. Finally, it happened in 94. And then when it did not, and he kept going on that to get gender identity and gender expression included, and eventually that was included. I think he just saw himself as continuing down that that same path.
He embraced diversity. So completely. So whatever your background, whether what you could be any race, any ethnicity, any religion, any class, economic class, it didn’t matter. He had this ability to be welcoming. I could never quote him exactly, because he had such a great way of speaking. But he said something about being, you know, unusual himself, he was certainly someone who could understand when others were unusual in other ways, or something like that. So he understood that he was eccentric in his own ways. Now, just in terms of being gay, that was, he might have said, that was one of the more common things about him.
DH: That is funny, but also true. Jim’s extraordinary life is an expression of pure humanism. His loss will be felt deeply here for many years. We were so blessed to have him in our community. OK, that’s it for now. I wish you all the best and hope to have you back next month! Till then, as always, Go Blue.
A tapestry of many threads
Spectrum Center co-founder and U-M alumnus Jim Toy died Jan. 1 at age 91, leaving a legacy for his work advancing LGBTQ+ rights in Ann Arbor, the state of Michigan, and the nation.
Toy was a fierce champion for human rights, and in 1971 helped establish the university’s Human Sexuality Office — later becoming the Spectrum Center — the country’s first campus office dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ students. The Center has provided outreach, education, and advocacy on campus and within the local community.
He held his position with the Human Sexuality Office until 1994, when he moved into a staff position that was later folded into the former Office for Institutional Equity, from which he retired from U-M in 2008.
Toy was born April 29, 1930, to a Chinese American father and Scottish Irish American mother, and spent his adolescence in Granville, Ohio, where he would later receive his undergraduate education. In high school, Toy experienced racial harassment in the wake of the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
He graduated from Denison University in 1951 with degrees in French and music, and then spent time in France teaching high school English. Upon returning to the United States, Toy worked in a blood bank in New York City to fulfill his service requirement as a conscientious objector.
It was at a Vietnam War protest in Detroit that Toy first came out publicly. He was known as an outspoken queer, Asian American activist who garnered statewide attention for coming out publicly in 1970 at the rally.
A tireless activist
This video from 2012 recalls Jim Toy’s legacy during the 40th anniversary celebration of the Spectrum Center.
A humane humanist
“Jim Toy was a model for us all both in how he lived and what he left,” Bentley Historical Library Director Terrence McDonald told Pride Source. “In life he was the gentlest but most unshakeable campaigner for what was right in so many areas; in death his legacy has been preserved in his magnificent collection at the Bentley Historical Library, which is not only frequently used but has served as a magnet for other collections involving LGBTQ individuals.”
Toy graduated from the School of Social Work in 1981 with a Master of Social Work degree, and the University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at its 2021 Spring Commencement.
“Receiving the honor of such a degree brings with it an obligation and responsibility to work for social justice and equity,” Toy told Pride Source in 2021. “I invite all of us to join in discharging this obligation and responsibility.”
Toy continued his involvement at the University in many ways, including speaking at the 2017 Lavender Graduation Ceremony and participating in the 2019 undergraduate student history project “Deconstructing the Model Minority at the University of Michigan.”
“It is rare to be a part of an organization so connected to its roots, purpose, and mission, and that wouldn’t be the case without Jim,” said Spectrum Center Director Will Sherry. “Over the years, I have been the audience to so many stories filled with moments of joy, fear, and loss where Jim has been a constant light helping move us forward.”
This article includes contributions from PrideSource.com.