Many words have been used to describe Jim Toy over the years; iconic, legend, trailblazer. None seem to grasp the impact that the man had on history. In April 1970, he delivered an anti-Vietnam war speech. During the address, he came out as a gay man. The first time that a figure in his position had done such a thing. His coming out happened to be for the Gay Liberation Front. A group in which he was active and a co-founder of. He was greeted with rapturous applause from the audience.
During an interview with Pride Source paper, Between The Lines, Toy elaborated on his feelings about being gay at the time. He said: “Growing up in a time when sexual orientation was not discussed, I felt confusion, isolation, shame, despair...”
With his coming out, Toy began a journey to help other queer people not feel so alone and isolated. He wanted to ensure that they had everything they needed, which included the support of people who were friendly towards them.
U.S. House Rep. Debbie Dingell wrote in a press release on the House's website: "Throughout his life, he worked to ensure that Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County communities were safe spaces where residents could live with pride in who they are and without fear of discrimination. Often I think about Jim’s words, ‘I am committed to making as much trouble as I can to create and maintain justice.’"
The ways in which Toy helped change the conversation around the LGBTQIA+ community can still be seen today.
Changing U of M
After publicly coming out, Toy continued to work towards equality in Michigan. He worked with the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to become more inclusive for the student body. His goal was to ensure that everyone felt safe when they were on campus.
In 1971, Toy and the university announced plans to establish the Human Sexuality Office. This was meant to be a safe space for queer students and faculty, while ensuring that there were resources for everyone to learn more about sexuality. Toy remained on the board until 1994 when he retired. The HSO was later renamed to Spectrum Center, but the mission remains the same.
Spectrum Center Director Will Sherry wrote on the website that Toy remained active in the community he created until the very end, often providing hope for those around him. “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.”
While he helped build the Human Sexuality Office in 1971, Toy also worked with the local churches. The Detroit News reports Bishop Richard Emrich of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan appointed him as one of the founding members of the Diocesan Commission on Homosexuality.
The committee published the Report & Recommendations of the Commission on Homosexuality in 1973. It is one of the first religious papers to be supportive of the gay community.
Making Life Better
Toy continued to work with the church. In 1975, he was appointed as the Secretary of the Diocesan Church & Society Committee. He also served as the Diocesan Committee on Transgender, Bisexual, Lesbian, and Gay Concerns. During his time with the church, he founded Oasis TBLG Outreach Ministry of the Diocese.
While he worked with U of M and the church, Toy also worked to ensure the LGBTQIA community had access to health care. He founded the Ann Arbor Gay Hotline in 1972. PBS says he worked for the organization until 1985.
Then worked to get funding for the Wellness Networks/Huron Valley (now known as Unified: HIV Health and Beyond). It was started in 1986 and provided testing for HIV and AIDS, one of the first clinics to offer that in Michigan.
The health organization offered literature and lectures on how to prevent HIV. It was important to Toy that this information was given to the community in the hopes of saving someone's life.
After a life of helping people, Toy passed away on January 1, 2022.
Nearly all the obituaries about him called Toy the first person to publicly come out. PBS wrote: "But activists and historians across the country this week are mourning leader Jim Toy, widely believed to be the first person in Michigan to publicly come out as gay..."
A sentiment echoed by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, and Pride Source. Each heaped praise on the man for blazing a trail for the LGBTQIA community and ensuring that equal rights wasn't a pipe dream, but something that could actually happen. While there is still more to do, Toy was able to see his goal come to fruition in his lifetime. Something that made his final years all that much sweeter.
As Rep. Dingell said in her press release: "Love continues to win because of the dedication that Jim put into his work. 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.”