Jim Toy remembered as pioneer LGBTQ activist in Michigan over five decades

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Jim Toy, a prominent LGBTQ activist and social worker who many believe was the first man to publicly come out in Michigan, died on Jan. 1, 2022. He was 91. 

A trailblazer for gay rights in the state, Mr. Toy sat at nearly every table — and chanted at every protest — where questions about political, social and religious LGBTQ advancement were being asked and propelled the debate forward.

Jim Toy speaks at a rally on June 26, 2013, in the Kerrytown section of Ann Arbor. Mr. Toy died Saturday, Jan, 1, 2022, at the age of 91.

"I am committed to making as much trouble as I can to create and maintain justice," he told NPR in 2020.

He co-authored the first official Pride Week proclamation by a governing body in the United States, the Ann Arbor City Council, as well as the city's non-discrimination policy based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and helped create and retain Ypsilanti’s non-discrimination ordinance as well. 

In a tribute to Mr. Toy on Twitter, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, described him as a "champion for equality" who spent his life working to ensure that people could live with pride and without fear of discrimination in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. 

"Love continues to win because of the dedication that Jim put into his work," wrote Dingell. "We owe so much to him and it’s on all of us to ensure his legacy continues. I’m thinking about his family, friends, and the Ann Arbor community as we mourn this great loss."

Mr. Toy was a founding member of the Detroit and Ann Arbor chapters of the Gay Liberation Front, an international activist network formed in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots and often viewed as the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

Speaking as a representative of the Detroit Gay Liberation Front, Mr. Toy was catapulted into the public sphere when, on April 15, 1970, the Chinese-American activist announced his sexuality to the world at a rally against the Vietnam War at Kennedy Square.

A year later, he helped establish and directed for over 20 years what became the Human Sexuality Office at the University of Michigan, since renamed the Spectrum Center, which for five decades has worked to support LGBTQ students and staff on campus. 

At the university, where he received his master's degree in clinical social work, he also spent nearly 40 years advocating for the inclusion of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation as protected categories in the University of Michigan's non-discrimination bylaw, ultimately a successful effort. 

He was also involved as an advocate and alleged victim in the UM scandal involving Robert Anderson, the late university sports doctor that more than 1,000 people, mostly men, have accused of sexual assault. 

Mr. Toy told Thomas Easthope, then UM's associate vice president for student services, that Anderson was “fooling around” with men at University Health Service in 1978 or 1979, according to a report from a law firm UM hired to investigate. Last year, Mr. Toy told The Detroit News that he himself had a troubling experience with Anderson during a medical exam when he was a UM graduate student.

Mr. Toy also worked with Keith Moree, a student volunteer in the Human Sexuality Office, to complain about Anderson to Easthope in late 1980 and early 1981, the report found. 

Mr. Toy thought of himself as something of a minister and in 1971 became a founding member of the Diocesan Commission on Homosexuality in the Episcopal Church, which penned one of the earliest documents within the church to advocate for the support of gay people.

"In Jim’s work as a therapist, counselor, trainer, facilitator, educator, and advocate he has sought to share the burden of those to whom he has been called to minister," read a biographical statement he submitted to the LGBTQ Religious Archives Network in 2004. 

He spearheaded an LGBTQ movement in the church and was the first co-coordinator of HIV/AIDS education for the Episcopal Diocese in 1987 when the epidemic was ravaging communities around the country and the world.

A year prior, he helped found the Wellness Networks/Huron Valley and HIV task forces in Ann Arbor and in several counties. 

"Jim’s passing this weekend does not mark the end of his legacy or the need for more LGBTQ+ advocacy work," read a tribute by the LGBTQ community center named after Mr. Toy on Facebook. "Instead, let’s allow his legacy to live on through the stories we tell and the meaningful differences we make in our communities." 

"Rest in Power Jim Toy," wrote Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel in a tribute on Twitter. "You and all your incredible work making the world a better and more accepting place for so many will never be forgotten."

LGBTQ activists, friends and University of Michigan students flooded social media sites with tributes to Mr. Toy after news of his passing began circulating. 

Jim Toy, a LGBTQ pioneer in Michigan who spearheaded the recognition of sexual identity and gender identity in anti-discrimination legislation, died on Jan. 1, 2022. He was 91.

Keith Orr, who organized alongside Mr. Toy for years and co-founded Ann Arbor's Aut Bar which catered to the LGBTQ community, said Mr. Toy taught him to "speak truth to power, no matter how powerful the force was."

"The root of Jim's power was enormous faith. Faith in God. Faith in humanity. Faith in Truth. Faith in what was good and fair," said Orr. "If you had the privilege to work with Jim, you are a better person because of it.

"...If you are a member of the LGBT community in Michigan, your life is better because of Jim Toy, whether you know him or not."



Staff Writer Kim Kozlowski contributed.