James Toy officially retired July 1, but he prefers to say that he’s “retreaded.”
“I keep on working for justice and equality,” said the 78-year-old, a University alum who has devoted his life to advocating for the LGBT community. “We must work until we all are free and enjoy full human and civil rights.”
Toy, recognized as the first person in the state to publicly declare his homosexuality, said his commitment stems in part from the injustices he endured in middle school when other schoolchildren criticized his mixed race and poverty.
Toy got started with the LGBT community in 1969 when he attended what he called a “gay meeting,” an open gathering of the state’s homosexuals. He was apprehensive about attending the meeting at the time, but it kickstarted a lifetime of activism and advocacy.
“At the meeting, we found a dozen other women and men just as energized, frightened and hopeful as I was,” Toy said.
It was with that group that Toy co-founded the Detroit Gay Liberation Movement. He later opened a local Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front in 1970.
Toy said the decision to start the group didn’t require much deep thinking.
“Someone said to me, ‘There’s an office on campus for women students and for black students; Don’t you guys want an office?’ ”
Six months after Toy applied for one, he co-founded the University’s Lesbian, Gay Male Bisexual Programs Office, now called The Spectrum Center. He went on to lead the center for 24 years and worked with the Office of Institutional Equity for an additional 14 years.
Scott Dennis, with whom Toy founded the first gay youth group in Ann Arbor in 1978, attributes much of the University’s gay rights strides to Toy’s work.
“We have such a big and well-developed office at Michigan because of the many years that he put in,” he said. “There is no question that people tried to eliminate that office and Jim was one of those people who was able to be diplomatic in the face of hostility and hatred.”
Among the things Toy says have made him proud: seeing two male friends walking down the sidewalk holding hands and a pair of additions to the University’s nondiscrimination clause.
Toy said seeing his friends hold hands was gratifying because it wouldn’t have occurred without gay rights advocacy. The nondiscrimination clause additions — put in place in 1993 and 2007 by University regents — added gender identity and gender expression in the school bylaws. Toy and others had pushed for the changes for 21 years.
Although he is no longer an official faculty member at the University, Toy said he’ll stay as involved as he was before his “retreading.”
Dennis called Toy’s retirement “a mere formality.”
“He will never retire,” said Dennis. “He is tireless. His dedication to his causes is going to continue forever.”
Toy’s career will be recognized on Nov. 12 during the Spectrum’s Center “Celebration of Liberation.” But that honor isn’t what motivates him.
“One memory that is so gratifying and so humbling is that sometimes years after a student has been in therapy with me, he would come back to campus and come by the office and say, ‘I want you to know if it had not been for you and the office, I would have killed myself,’ ” Toy said.
Toy himself said he has much more work to do, noting that he and others will continue to fight to add sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to the state’s nondiscrimination policy.
Jackie Simpson, director of The Spectrum Center, said Toy’s retirement wouldn’t silence his advocacy.
“Without his inspiration, support, passion, and resilience, our movement on campus and beyond would be significantly different,” said Spectrum Center Director Jackie Simpson. “Jim’s influence will continue and even though he has decided to be a retired staff member, we know his voice as an advocate for LGBTQ and Ally people will remain as loud as ever.”