The Asian/Pacific Islander American (A/PIA) Studies Program at the University of Michigan mourns the loss of Jim Toy, a pioneering LGBTQ+ civil rights activist, who passed away on January 1, 2022, at the age of 91.
Jim Toy was born in 1930 to a Chinese-American father and a Scottish-Irish American mother, and over the next nine decades, went on to become one of the most significant LGBTQ+ leaders in the history of the University of Michigan and southeastern Michigan. In a 2015 interview with journalist and A/PIA Studies lecturer Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, Toy reflected on the difficulties of navigating an antagonistic and discriminatory environment as a queer person of color. Seeing racial and LGBTQ+ struggles for equality as intertwined, Toy explained, “Asian American and TBLGQI issues intersect in all our struggles for justice and equality, our attempts to gain and retain our human and civil rights.”
Toy first joined the University of Michigan as a Master's student in Clinical Social Work, where he quickly made a powerful impact on and off-campus. As a founding member and secretary of the Detroit Gay Liberation Movement (DGLM), Toy later co-founded the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front (AAGLF). After the advocacy of the AAGLF, the University of Michigan administration established the Human Sexuality Office (HSO), the first staffed office for queer students at an institution of higher learning in the U.S. Toy, alongside campus leader Cyndi Gair, were the office’s very first staff members. For over two decades, Toy helped build the HSO (eventually renamed the Spectrum Center) into a safe space, a counseling center, and advocacy organization for LGBTQ+ students and university members amidst a systemically discriminatory environment. In 1972, Toy and the HSO began a protracted twenty-year battle to include "sexual orientation" as a category protected from employment and educational discrimination in the University by-laws. Off-campus, Toy was instrumental in drafting both the pioneering Ann Arbor Lesbian-Gay Pride Week Proclamation and Human Rights Ordinance, one of the first municipal non-discrimination ordinances in the U.S. to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. His work at both state and national levels continued as a member of the Task Force on the Family and Sexuality of the Civil Rights Committee of the Michigan State House Representatives; a board member of the Michigan Organization for Human Rights; and cofounder of Integrity, a gay Episcopal organization. He was tireless in efforts to build institutions of support for LGBTQ+ community members, founding the Washtenaw County LGBT Retirement Center Task Force, Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project, and Transgender Advocacy Project, among other organizations.
Jim Toy's contributions to the LGBTQ+ movement have been recognized throughout the years, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Social Workers. In 2011, the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project has renamed the Jim Toy Community Center, and just a few years later, Ann Arbor declared April 29 as “Jim Toy Day.” With support from several campus communities including A/PIA Studies, the United Asian American Organizations, and the Spectrum Center, Toy received an honorary degree from the University of Michigan at its 2021 Spring Commencement. As a regular guest speaker in Roland Hwang and Frances Kai-Hwa Wang’s course on "A/PIAs in the Civil Rights Movement,” Toy continued to share his experience and inspire a new generation of UM students and activists. As Roland Hwang explains, “Jim Toy is a person who lived his life in many ways before we were ready for him… he has taught us all to be kind to one another, to live with grace, joy, and tolerance, as we march toward the goal of true equity and equality for all.”
We are forever grateful for the work that Jim Toy has done to improve our corner of the world, creating a safer and more equitable space for the LGBTQ+ communities locally and nationally, and serving as a model of courage and commitment to social justice.
Further reading on Jim Toy’s life and legacy:
- Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, “Michigan’s First Publicly ‘Out’ Citizen Still Fighting for LGBTQ Rights“ (NBC News, June 12, 2015)
- James W. Toy Papers: 1963-2009 at UM Bentley Library
- Student Life Spectrum Center: Our History
- “Five to receive honorary degrees at Spring Commencement” (The University Record, March 25, 2021)
- Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, "Activists and historians remember Jim Toy as a pioneering leader in LGBTQ rights" (PBS News Hour, January 5, 2022)